Thinking around the problem...

Ron Monday is a very sharp fellow. He is the president and CEO of a company most people have never heard of, but which is quite significant in automation. Ron builds OEM modules for Rockwell ControlLogix and for ProSoft. Now, with the help of some technology from ILS (a spin-off of IBM), he is ready to set the world of interoperability on its ear. Basically, the world of enterprise IT grew incrementally, and the world of plant automation did too. As the desire to interconnect at the enterprise level grew, so did the confusing tangle of APIs and drivers necessary to get from one program to another without crunching your data. The need to get data from one vertical silo into another and back has been one of the most significant challenges (the other being security) to enterprise IT in the past decade. It does look like it is getting easier, though, especially since there are only a couple of big players left, and it is to their advantage to have NO interoperability problems between their legacy systems. At the same time, remember, the world of plant IT grew, also incrementally. From 1975, when both Honeywell and Yokogawa released the first practical Distributed Control Systems, we've been working on interconnectivity between plant floor sensors and final control elements and the control system. With OPC and fieldbus technologies, we've managed to come up with workable solutions. And this brings us to the evil of "middleware." Middleware is the stuff that gets the data out of the DCS and gets it into the enterprise data stack. See, first the data comes into the field device. It is then sent to the DCS, where the various plant floor IT tools, such as data historian, HMI, asset management, plant process optimization, and alarm management live. The problem, of course, is that there are 20 or so vendors of HMI/DCS software and hardware, mostly incompatible and non-interoperable. So the idea of OPC drivers for interopability came to be. But, Ron Monday figured, this is really kludgy. Why does the data, which comes from the plant floor controllers anyway, have to go through the control system to get to the next level, the MES or ERP tier? Well, other than that's how everybody does it, it turns out that you don't have to do it that way at all. You can use Monday's new box. Called an xCoupler, it is designed to take data out of the PLC or other controller on the plant floor, and deliver it in the desired format to the enterprise IT system. Monday's company, Online Development Inc., has already developed what they call "transports" for a variety of enterprise software environments, including IBM Websphere MQ, and good old DB2. Oracle support is available too, as is MS SQL Server support. What does this mean for you? It means that what ever kind of HMI you use is irrelevant to the connections between the plant floor controllers and the enterprise. You have bypassed the HMI, and it no longer matters if the particular brand of HMI or DCS is compatible with, say the former JD Edwards, or the slightly less former Peoplesoft, or SAP. You can select your HMI for its ability to be an HMI, rather than for its data hooks. This is a significant development. You can see more info at www.oldi.com Walt