Why End Users "Heart" Middleware

Most of the gang is working long hours doing the electronic show daily at Emerson Exchange, and Walt is smoking up the wires with blog entries live from beautiful downtown Grapevine, Texas. Meanwhile, back at the Itasca ranch, we're getting reports in from the rest of the process automation world. What follows is a report from our Senior Technical Editor and AutomationXchange lead, Dan Hebert, on what the the folks in the trenches are really thinking about that ever-popular argument, plant-floor-to-top-floor data integration. The user group meetings are highlights of our annual Control magazine AutomationXchange event.This year's event was held from August 19-22 in Park City, Utah. The topic of the Monday afternoon user group meeting was integration from the plant floor to the top floor.   Automation professionals from end-user firms like Coca-Cola, GlaxoSmithKline and Kraft discussed how their companies implement data integration. Most of the end users in attendance used some form of middleware to connect their plant-floor automation systems to their corporate-wide ERP systems. The most popular form of middleware was a data historian, and the most widely used data historian was OSIsoft's PI system. The majority of the attendees used SAP as their ERP systems with the Oracle/PeopleSoft/JD Edwards conglomerate coming in second.  Virtually all attendees said that middleware was necessary because data to and from the plant floor needed to be massaged and managed prior to communication with an ERP system. Data coming from their automation systems emerged in great torrents, as would be expected with systems that monitor thousands of I/O points every second. Most of this data is of no interest to the ERP system, so the middleware is needed to sort the wheat from the chaff. After sorting, the data of interest to the ERP system is converted to a recognizable format and sent to its proper destination within the ERP data structure. In a similar vein, most of the ERP system data is of no interest to the process automation systems. The middleware must extract the pertinent data, such as recipe information, from the ERP, convert this data to a format recognizable by the automation system and send the data to its proper destination at the automation system HMI or controller. Although products exist that provide direct links from control systems to ERP systems, none of the attendees saw these products as viable for their particular applications. One end user discussed how his company used data historians to crack the data-transfer code. His company had a data historian at each site and a corporate-wide data historian. The corporate-wide data historian communicated to each of the plant site historians, and communications with the ERP system was only through the corporate-wide data historian. Why Excel Still Rules Presentation and analysis of process automation data was another main topic of discussion, and end users were all over the map in terms of tools used for these tasks. Some used tools provided by the data historian vendor, others used ERP system tools and still others wrote custom applications. But whatever the original source of the data, virtually everyone eventually used humble Excel spreadsheets for much of their data analysis and presentation. The reason cited was simple: Everyone in the room knew how to use Excel. Excel can be used at many different levels from simple arithmetic operations to extremely complex statistical analysis, making it easy to learn for new users, but also very capable for experienced users.Many commented that it was expensive to buy data analysis tools from software vendors, and many said that the ease-of-use of these tools left a lot to be desired, hence the reliance on Excel. SAP in particular was singled out as being often incomprehensible for a casual user. For many of the same reasons, Excel was the tool of choice for creating reports. Everyone knew how to use Excel and found it good enough for creating the vast majority of their needed reports. The Hatfields and the McCoys Do Integration A second major point of interest was the internal conflict between automation professionals and IT staff. One end user after another had harsh words for IT folks, much to the amusement of one user team that consisted of an automation lead and an IT professional. It seems that IT wants to run the communication networks that connect ERP systems to the plant floor. They also want to take charge of everything connected to these networks. That can very problematic when a PC-based operator station HMI is automatically updated with the latest Microsoft patch. Microsoft patches aren't exhaustively tested with automation system PC-based applications prior to release, and this can cause severe problems.  One measure of the hostility between automation and IT was the frequent reference to the DMZ. It was taken as a given by most of the end users that a demilitarized zone was a necessity to keep war from breaking out between the two groups. Next year's 5th annual AutomationXchange event will be held in Park City, Utah, August 10-13, 2008. Let us know if you are interested in attending .