Industrial Computers, Part 2. Data Processing Escapes the Enclosure

Whether It Happens on a Cloud-Based Service, Virtualized Server or Plain Old Wireless, Internet or Ethernet, It's Clear That Industrial Computing for Process Control Has Moved Beyond Its Old Laptops and Desktops. So How Can You Protect Such Far-Flung Data Processing?

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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Computers have gone from being impersonal to very personal to basically everywhere. In a few short years, they evolved from being huge calculating devices in laboratories to individual data processing units on everyone's desk or lap. And now, it seems like they're going back into centralized server farms to manage the virtualized computing and cloud-based services we'll all be using soon. 

Of course, this technological ebb and flow is driven by the evolution of computing that's grown relentlessly more powerful, faster, smaller and less expensive—and the plant floor is no exception. Industrial computers have followed this same path, and process control engineers, technicians and operators have gone from using bulky desktop boxes in costly enclosures to sealed touchscreen HMIs and onward to tablet PCs and smart phones. And, because of their faster, smaller, cheaper microprocessors, computers can take almost any form, be embedded in almost any front-line device from sensors to motors, and perform data processing in almost any location or process control application.  

For example, Marquis Management Services Inc. (www.marquisenergy.com) in Hennepin, Ill., operates several ethanol refineries in the midwestern United States, so it's seeking long-term sustainability and striving to be the low-cost provider in its industry. "We have a lot of data to collect and analyze to better predict operating parameters and reduce variability," explained Jason Marquis, president of Marquis. "Even small, 1% improvements in production can mean millions of dollars in savings, so we're creating multivariable process control models with help from Rockwell Automation's (www.rockwellautomation.com) engineers that can help us produce the highest-quality product at the lowest cost."

Because many of its bio-refineries are located in small, remote towns, Marquis is even connecting key off-site engineers with these facilities by giving iPads to some of its local operators, which gives everyone access to the data they need—both for routine operations and to run its new multivariable models. "This is also empowering people who have been using mostly wrenches for much of their careers," added Marquis. "Now, instead of the maintenance guy having to radio in from the field and then wait for actuations to come out from a central control room, he can take the iPad into the field and make direct adjustments as needed."

On the Web, in the Cloud 

No matter how much computing formats evolve or where they're located, the ultimate goal of process control is still production optimization and efficiency. Speedy networking is allowing all kinds of data processing via the Internet so users can perform basic calculations on websites; or contract to have much or all of their computing done by cloud-based services; or even set up internal servers that can do the computing for many employees and applications.
For example, Bronco Wine Co. (www.broncowine.com) in Ceres, Calif., not only produces and ships more than 45 million liters per year of its own Charles Shaw brand, but other vintners also use its facilities to produce their own wines (Figure 1). These processes require lots of rigorous testing and process validation, and Bronco's expanding operations need this data to be distributed to a growing user group. Unfortunately, Bronco's former SCADA solution for environmental controls and HMI interfacing was experiencing sporadic and sometimes unresponsive communications, but the vendor was reportedly primarily interested in being paid to re-license Bronco's existing users. In addition, Bronco's enterprise plant management and SCADA solution needed to integrate with databases from other enterprise software applications, such as ProPak and  IFS Maintenance Management Software. Also, the company needed to provide scalability for more than 150 clients in its four California plants, plus remote access for troubleshooting.

To better coordinate its production and enterprise systems, Bronco recently implemented Inductive Automation's (www.inductiveautomation.com) FactoryPMI plant management and SCADA software. Using an SQL database as its engine, Factory PMI is based on Java and OPC software platform and employs a web browser to launch its client interface, so any computer that can connect to the network and run a browser is a FactoryPMI client. This lets users with login identifications access the system at whatever level their login group specifies and allows administrators to add or delete users in real time from anywhere. FactoryPMI's security model also enables administrators to fine-tune projects, set user policies and track activities at every client.

 "I can be in Napa and see what's going on in Ceres right now," says Paul Franzia, Bronco's engineering manager. "Sometimes I tell the supervisor that there's a problem before he even knows. FactoryPMI has given us insight into our business." As a result, Franzia can log on wherever he is, view whatever screen his supervisors are looking at,and provide instant feedback. Using the software's graph trending, data logging tables and click-to-graph function, Franzia adds that he can easily track and pin-point operational issues to solve problems immediately.

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