Europe's Best-Kept Automation Software Secret Marks 20th Birthday

Here are excerpts from the August 2007 issue of Andrew Bond’s Industrial Automation Insider, a monthly newsletter covering the important industrial automation news and issues as seen from the U.K.

By Andrew Bond

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By Andrew Bond, Industrial Automation Insider

Europe’s Best-Kept Automation Software Secret Marks 20th Birthday with Windows Vista Certification

Wonderware, it seems, isn’t the only SCADA software vendor celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2007, and while its birthday celebrations were no doubt extensive and expensive, they almost certainly didn’t feature a 250-year-old former archbishop’s palace as the venue. However, Schloss Leopoldskron on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria and the location for some of the key scenes in the film of “The Sound of Music,” was where Copa-Data last month held its own 20th birthday party. And before you say “Copa-Who?” be aware that the guest list included top brass from key customers such as BMW, Audi and Ford of Germany. Nor does Microsoft have to ask who Copa-Data is—the latest version of Copa-Data’s zenOn SCADA package is the first offering of its kind from any vendor to achieve the accolade of being “Certified for Windows Vista.”

All of which is heady stuff for a company that is not only entirely self-financed, but now once again entirely owned by its founders, brothers Thomas and Alexander Punzenberger, after they bought back all of the externally owned shares last year. With both brothers still well on the right side of 50, there’s no sign of that independence being surrendered. Indeed it’s a key plank of the company’s strategy, not least because it allows it to pursue its own—or perhaps more exactly Thomas Punzenberger’s own—ideas about what a SCADA system should look like. But it’s also increasingly seen as an advantage, even by its bluest of blue chip clients.

“Many of our prospective customers are looking for a hardware independent solution,” explains brand manager Markus Stangl. “Although the automation market is growing at between 5% and 10% a year, it’s also consolidating so that there are fewer players. As a result users seem to have less control over their core processes and are experiencing higher total cost of ownership.”

Meeting user expectations means focusing primarily on ease of use and ease of integration. zenOn, it is claimed, can be implemented entirely without coding and purely by parameter setting and boasts what the company believes is the widest range of its own drivers for third party devices.

Why Not Rely Simply on OPC?

Because another key plank of the approach is quality, says, Stangl, and “You can’t control the quality of the other vendor’s OPC implementation.”

The same, he argues, goes for proprietary drivers from third parties, so Copa-Data has a policy of always developing its own. Expensive maybe, but it’s seen as a key differentiator not just from hardware vendors’ SCADA offerings, but from those of the other independent vendors, and the payback comes in ease of integration and implementation and, hence, in customer satisfaction. The same goes for what he describes as its “one click networking” and “one-click FDA compliance” and its automated engineering documentation. Add the capabilities of its Straton soft PLC, developed by its French joint venture Copalp and currently being used by Audi for logic control in a plant in Hungary, and you have what Stangl calls a “true open DCS” or, more colorfully, “Esperanto for automation.”

Mits’ MES Module Does Away with MES

Mitsubishi has made something of a habit of announcing new products under old names, for example, maintaining the MX branding when it switched from Intellution to Citect for its SCADA offering back in 2003. So when the hacks were summoned to Mits’ UK headquarters at Hatfield, some 30 miles north of London, last month, it wasn’t entirely surprising that part of the justification for the trip—made somewhat more complicated by PR consultant Bob Dobson’s failure to identify in his instructions the correct junction at which to leave the motorway—was  the launch of a new MES software product under the MX brand which comes neither from Intellution nor from Citect, but from Gemba Solutions, the Leicester, U.K.-based MES developer which was bought out by its management from the MCS Group.

More of that later. First, however, what looks a lot like a new variation on the Mits approach—a new name for an old product. In fairness, the iQ platform, which carries the tag line “Intelligent Automation,” does involve one new module, and Jeremy Shinton, product manager for modular PLCs and software, assured us that there are “a whole lot of additional things to come,” but for now the fact remains that we’re talking about one new module that fits into the backplane of the long-established Q-series of PLCs.

That said, however, the new MES module is certainly significant and could have some of the other vendors reassessing their own approaches. Already in use in Mits’ own plants in Japan and in the GEMA (Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance) facility which builds 800,000 engines a year for Chrysler, Mitsubishi Motors and Hyundai, it represents, claims commercial communications manager Jeff Whiting, a “new generation of integration.”

Eliminating PCs

What it actually does is to connect directly to industry standard databases, such as SQL Server and Oracle, flattening the architecture and eliminating the need for PCs to link the plant floor to the ERP and MES layers. A key objective in the development was to eliminate any requirement for programming or scripting so that setup would be entirely a matter of configuration, selecting which data is to be logged and at what intervals or on what trigger. The module doesn’t just have access to the Q-series backplane in which it is installed, but can get data from anywhere on the plant network and talk to up to 32 concurrent databases, automatically generating the relevant SQL code. In addition, it provides local backup in the event of a communication failure, buffering data locally on standard flash cards until communication can be restored. It thus has a significant role to play in regulated traceability applications.

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