Andrew Bond Covers Process Automation in Europe

Here are excerpts from the October 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.

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Lego Mindstorms Upgrade

National Instruments and the Lego Group have announced a software update for the Lego
Mindstorms NXT robotics invention system. The software is powered by National Instruments’
LabVIEW and now provides support for Windows Vista and for Intel-based Macintosh computers. It also improves memory usage on the NXT Intelligent Brick resulting from smaller compiled programs and compressed sound files. As a result users will enjoy increased system performance, particularly when creating more complex programs. The updated software remains compatible with the NI LabVIEW Toolkit for Lego Mindstorms NXT which allows LabVIEW users to create and download VIs to operate and control the robotics platform. Third-party software and hardware users can also create native blocks using the toolkit for development on
Lego Mindstorms NXT.


Wonderware launch heralds convergence on IT

There’s a certain amount of confusion about the significance of last week’s launch in California of InTouch 10.0 and System Platform 3.0, which UK journalists witnessed via a live web cast at the impressive new headquarters just outside Manchester of U.K. and Ireland Wonderware distributor solutionsPT.

Via the webcast, we saw a somewhat jerky Mark Davidson, Wonderware’s vice president of global marketing, describe the event as the most significant launch since the introduction of InTouch, while president Mike Bradley said that it was the most important announcement in the company’s 20 year history. However Bill Sherwood, president of leading U.S. integrator Progressive Software Solutions or PS2, was somewhat more modest in his assessment, describing it as the biggest release since InTouch was network-enabled.

Given that it’s Sherwood and his peers who will actually have to build their businesses around it, we’re inclined to accept his view, and indeed to give the greater credence to his assessment of the key issues. These, in his view, are the common development ‘Studio,’ the use of standard objects and templates, the support for powerful scripting. A common development environment, he says, eliminates the need for developers to learn multiple platforms since they can now do everything in the one environment, while support for object technology means that changes can be propagated throughout a system and “If you can’t see the power in that you should be reporting for some other magazine,” he told the assembled hacks. The collaborative environment means fewer errors during development and the scripting capability uses the same syntax as .net. What that all adds up to is a 25% saving in engineering during application development, said Sherwood, who emphasized the point with a Tony Blair like assertion that the three most important aspects are “Reuse, reuse and reuse.”

Back to the future

But why, if it’s constantly referred to as a single launch, were two products announced last week? The answer seems to lie in the history of software development at Wonderware since its acquisition by Invensys/Siebe nine years ago. While Invensys continued to invest in Wonderware and in what came to be known as ArchestrA, even during the darkest days of financial meltdown, the then CEO Rick Haythornthwaite and COO Leo Quin felt obliged to make product announcements if only to indicate to shareholders and analysts that they were getting something for their money. But ArchestrA isn’t a product, and the announcements served more to confuse than to enlighten. Nor did subsequent releases of Application Server and more recently System Platform do much to reduce potential users’ confusion.

So the real significance of this latest launch is not that it’s the biggest or most important since some arbitrary point in the past, but that it marks the point when the product structure originally intended and implied by the development of ArchestrA is finally put in place. And that means, paradoxically that, with a great sigh of relief, the rest of us can finally stop worrying about the fact that we don’t really understand it. That’s because, while its based on ArchestrA, System Platform 3.0 does something which pretty much all of us can understand, namely provide a common platform of services including, for example, security and scripting, a common ‘Development Studio’, and central management and distribution of applications – what was Application Server – into which individual applications can then be “plugged.”

Many of those applications are the latest version, of what used to make up Factory Suite but, whereas that was essentially a collection of independent products, all will now be fully integrated through the common System Platform and all get new names. Thus InTrack becomes the Wonderware Manufacturing Execution Module and Industrial SQL becomes Wonderware Historian.

SCADA/HMI Module?

Logically, on that basis, InTouch should become the Wonderware SCADA/HMI Module but that would present problems in keeping the tens of thousands of existing InTouch users on side. So instead we have InTouch 10.0 which is designed both to plug in to System Platform and at the same time provide a standalone upgrade path for existing InTouch users going right back to the original release 20 years ago.

According to Rashesh Mody, one time CTO but now vice president of the HMI & SCADA business focus areas, the new release supports all the existing capabilities of InTouch and includes a further 200 enhancements. Arguably the most important is the ArchestrA based vector graphics which allow the same InTouch application to be deployed on the full range of devices right down to and including CE-based hardware HMIs. Moreover to further lower the entry point, Wonderware is introducing a new range of CE-based hardware HMIs embedding InTouch 10.0. Other operating systems supported include XP, Windows Server 2003 and Vista although, perhaps surprisingly, given the degree to which it has been highlighted by rival SCADA vendor Copa-Data, there was no mention of Vista certification. That, as we understand it, is key to being able to take advantage of the new security features within Vista but John Bailey and his team at Solutions PT were unable to give any indication of whether or when certification might be forthcoming.

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