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).
On the Same Page—and Desktop
Central Desktop (www.centraldesktop.com) in Pasadena, Calif., reports that it provides web-based, wiki-enabled collaboration tools for business teams—without IT problems. Central Desktop says it enables teams to manage and collaborate on projects inside and outside firewalls, as well as create team intranets and group workspaces.
An individual workspace is a website where teams share information. Central Desktop users share files, coordinate tasks, manage documents and discuss topics in their workspace. Central Desktop stores all users' data and its servers at its offsite, secure Gigabit Data Center that has power and Internet redundancy.
Sharing is the Point
Microsoft SharePoint (sharepoint.microsoft.com) includes many Microsoft products, including collaboration functions, process management and search modules and a document-management platform. As a result, SharePoint can host websites that access shared workspaces, information stores and documents, as well as host-defined applications such as wikis and blogs. All users can manipulate proprietary controls called "web parts" or interact with pieces of content such as lists and document libraries. Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) is the platform and is included with Windows Server and as a free download for registered servers, while services such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) provide added functions and are licensed.
For instance, Detroit Sewerage and Water Department (www.DWSD.org) recently finished a 10-year upgrade to the controls and instruments that run its huge wastewater treatment plant, five freshwater treatment plants, three detention basins, 20 booster stations, 11 wastewater collection stations and 200 remote sites. This $300-million upgrade included hundreds of individual projects and thousands of documents, so DWSD is not only using Emerson Process Management's (www.emersonprocess.com) Ovation controls, but also is using Emerson's maintenance services that recently added SharePoint.
"We use SharePoint hosted at Emerson's website to store and access as-built drawings, check I/O point configurations, operations and maintenance manuals, and manage other documents," says Biren Saparia, DWSD's process control system administrator. "All of these are on the Internet, but only DWSD and Emerson have access, and they're made more secure with passwords, views that are restricted by job roles, and check-in and check-out requirements. SharePoint is easier than what we did in the past. For example, where we used to have to take a data-stick and manually update each of our 200 remote sites, now we can just send a message to them. Also, our technicians in the field have instant access to schedules, bulletins, training materials, calibration procedures and other documents they need to do their projects. These also are web-based versions that can be immediately updated. This means a field team in one zone can see what another team is doing and adjust their schedule whenever we need it. This is saving us a lot of time and money."
Group Activities: Yahoo!...and Google Too.
Similarly, Yahoo Groups (groups.yahoo.com) is a community-driven Internet communication tool—a hybrid between an electronic mailing list and an Internet forum. Group messages can be posted and read by email or on the group's homepage, like a web forum. Members can choose whether to receive emails, or they can read posts at the website. Some groups are simply announcement lists to which only group moderators can post, while others are discussion lists. Yahoo Groups provides added functions on the website, such as voting, calendar systems and file uploading.
Likewise, Google Groups' (groups.google.com) latest capabilities include page creation for collaborating on shared web pages hosted within the group itself; user customization; and file sharing for uploading and sharing work with other group members.
Most engineers are peripherally familiar with online profiling and sharing tools, including LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com), Facebook (www.facebook.com) and MySpace (www.myspace.com). All of this social chattering can seem amusing or frivolous, right up until you realize that these tools are becoming the mainstream method for posting resumes, finding job candidates or locating a system integrator or other expert to help keep your process application up and running.
In fact, some users of Emerson's DeltaV process control systems already are accessing LinkedIn and Facebook groups on its main Easy DeltaV web page and following strings of questions and answers. "Open-source software developers and PC makers like Dell have been using these forums for years, and we can do it, too," says Jim Cahill, marketing manager for Emerson's Systems and Solutions division and chief blogger for its Process Experts blog. "People need fast answers, and these social areas can really solve some problems. The engineers in our industries are natural problem solvers, so they're gravitating to these new-media technologies because they can be a good shortcut to useful answers and solutions they might not find with traditional methods."
Another well-known web and videoconferencing service for online meetings and collaboration is WebEx (www.WebEx.com), which Black & Veatch (www.BV.com) uses to do its factory acceptance tests (FAT) for Dynegy's (www.dynegy.com) 665-MW Plum Point coal-fired power plant under construction near Osceola, Ark.
"FAT used to mean putting all the equipment together on a supplier's assembly floor to make sure all the hardware and software works right together before shipping it to the customer," says Tim Suellentrop, B&V's project lead for Plum Point. "We had to practice to get familiar with it, but everthing on WebEx was just as if we were sitting there. When we found items to fix, we just wrote them up, sent them to Emerson and they worked on the fix while we moved on to the next item. We did four or five weeks of testing from our offices, and then went back to Emerson for only two or three weeks of on-site testing, instead of several months. I think our remote FAT was even a bit more organized and detailed than before, we saved a lot of travel and hotel costs, and the real beauty part is we could do the FAT, but still go home at the end of the day."
Devices Join Discussion
Palantiri Systems Inc. (www.palantrirsystems.com) reports that its Collaborative Device Community platform enables interaction between people and their hardware. With this platform, devices, as well as humans, can be part of the collaboration scenario. They can blog, send and receive messages, report status, share files and interact with engineers, technicians or operators to address issues.
For example, if a device can share its status, history and "knowledge" via blog posts, then its service technician can securely "chat" with it to check its status and run diagnostic routines. Likewise, bringing devices into the social network means users can incorporate device profile and historical information. Users also can post questions about unique product use to a forum accessible to all members of the community. ABB (www.abb.com) reports it's developing a collaborative device community pilot project to aid communication and interaction between users and their devices. (Figure 1).
Jim Montague is Control's executive editor.