This article was printed in CONTROL's July 2009 edition.
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Some new media players want to join your collaboration band. Traditional collaboration tools have evolved from face-to-face meetings, telephone and conference calls to also embrace emails and instant messaging, design software files accessible by remote users and video conferencing via WebEx and other providers. However, just as ever-smaller and less costly computers and software pushed process control from big centralized control rooms to performing data processing in many intelligent devices in the field, this increased computing power is allowing colleagues to move themselves and their documents from user-located and maintained servers and software out into web-based environments on the Internet.
New social media comes in many guises, such as web-based discussion groups and Internet forums, weblogs, mini- and microblogs, wikis and other hybrid forms. These devices typically let users share text, emails, audio, images and video. Examples of social media applications include Wikipedia for reference tasks; Yahoo Groups and Google Groups for reference and social networking; LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook also for social networking, YouTube for video sharing; and Twitter and others for microblogging.
Not surprisingly, many of these tools overlap and often are linked directly or indirectly with many or all of the others. Very surprisingly, most if not all can be used by process control engineers to improve set-up, operations and maintenance of their applications and plants.
"There are a lot of little tools out there, so the tendency is to use them in a pretty haphazard fashion. It's pretty much of a free for all," says Hesh Kagan, managing consultant in Invensys Process Systems' (www.ips.invensys.com) global consulting division. "The main difference is that many applications run on the Internet, many documents are now stored there, and security is provided for them too."
Kagan adds that Invensys' global consulting division uses instant messaging, Skype's Internet-based phone calls and Microsoft's SharePoint internally, and is beginning to use Google Documents with some partners and suppliers. "The time is ripe. We'll likely be using many of these tools with our users soon," he says. "The best advice is to go on the Web and try out some of them. They allow better collaboration between everyone working on projects, but they also enable greater opportunities for organic development and more spontaneous and creative work on those projects. So instead of being constrained by the old top-down structure, these tools let engineers and workers tell their managers what needs to be done."
However, despite the lure of these communications, document-storage and meeting-place tools, the primary and eternal goal remains actually having something useful to say—solving a real problem or providing expertise that truly aids other people.
Until recently, the main software-based tools for collaboration beyond the usual communication standbys were workflow packages growing out of the process design and simulation realms. These software products, including Intergraph's SmartPlant, AspenTech's aspenOne, PTC's CoCreate, Dassault Systemes' Delmia and others, are usually resident to each user company's location and computer server, and they allow colleagues to access, store, collaborate and make version-controlled changes to technical documents.
Because these tools support access to files among coworkers, they too support distributing files via email and other media, but their internal operations and data storage still reside with their users. This physical ownership and perceived security is highly valued by many users, so these tools remain a cornerstone of many design efforts and collaboration projects. However, the newer Web-based social media tools are beginning to challenge them on functions, speed and convenience.
To address these trends, Siemens Energy and Automation (www.sea.siemens.com) reports it recently bought design engineering software provider Comos Industry Solutions GmbH (www.comos.com) to help it integrate process automation systems and building maintenance and asset management systems, according to Moin Shaikh, Siemens marketing manager for networking technologies and process systems. Siemens also recently launched its SiBase Services to help its users and partners collaborate on projects. "The main idea is to allow people to better use Siemens' expertise as they're executing their process automation projects by 'componentizing' our best practices into services that users can select," explains Shaikh. SiBase includes the usual phone calls and emails, but it also uses online meetings, secure FTP websites and You Send It documents.
World of Wikis
To understand how these new social media work, it helps to learn about wikis first. Named for the Hawaiian word for fast by way of a Honolulu airport shuttle, a wiki is a web-based database that uses collaborative software and a simple markup language for easy set-up, editing and maintenance of hyperlinked web pages with a common web browser. It's typically deployed as an application server that runs on one or several web servers, so it can form a database for creating, browsing and searching through information. Content is stored in a file system, and changes are stored in a relational database management system. Because most public wikis can be altered by users without review, private wiki servers typically require user authentication to edit or read pages. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and power community websites, including the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com).