Create Connections

Oct. 30, 2003

Plants seize on web technology as a cost-effective way to pump information

When users in the process industries discover a wonderful new technology that can solve multiple problems at low cost, they adopt it faster than a motion to adjourn at a golf pros' convention. Process control engineers are starting to use web technology in new and exciting ways, and your acceptance is coming amazingly fast.

The last time control engineers jumped on a bandwagon so quickly was when you adopted PC technology for use as HMIs and SCADA systems in the 1980s. You can see where that took us: The industry has never been the same, big companies toppled, and the cost of control systems plummeted.

What's more, you pressed on in the face of dire warnings that PCs were unsuitable for control because they were unreliable, not usable in industrial environments, not fast enough, and a host of other complaints, mostly from DCS vendors who could see the handwriting on the wall. They saw a thousand-dollar technology that had the potential to deliver the same functionality as a million-dollar DCS, and they were worried. Rightfully so, because PC-based systems have done exactly that.

The point is, instrument and control engineers were smart enough to see through the arguments, understand the real reasons behind the objections, and figure out themselves that PC technology was actually good for them. Some bugs existed, of course, but nothing insurmountable.

Like PCs, which entered our control world as data acquisition systems and operator interfaces, web technology is being used to acquire data from locations near and far and bring it into control systems, HMIs, process historians, and higher-level software, such as MES, ERP, and supply chain management. And, like PCs in the early days, web technology is not being used for control, because nobody trusts it enough.

Perhaps web technology will not revolutionize the process control business quite as radically as PCs did, but it is starting off the same way.

Intranet vs. Internet

In the simplest terms, web technology generally means the originating device is able to produce and transmit data that can be viewed by a user on a PC, laptop, or handheld PDA via a conventional Internet browser, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape. The data also conforms to Internet formats that make it easy to bring it into databases, historians, and ERP systems. XML, HTML, Web Services, and similar terminology is the new language of data transmission today.

Data can be sent over the commercial Internet, a company intranet, wireless, or broadband connections. To the equipment at both ends of a web-based connection, it doesn't matter exactly how the data is transmitted, and the actual connection is often referred to as the Internet "cloud."

To users, though, it makes a big difference. Going out on the Internet is cheap, fast, and reliable. Cable modems and DSL provide broadband speed near 1 Mbps for a pittance--less than $100 per month in many cases. The Internet can have security problems, however, because information packets can be intercepted and read.

A company intranet--essentially a proprietary, secure Internet--eliminates security problems, but the company has to pay for all the broadband communication links and Internet servers. Leased lines can be expensive, and they don't go everywhere.

Wireless, cellular, RF, and private broadband connections are also used, and sometimes a company's network system will encompass all of the above. For a process plant, it often comes down to a choice between using the commercial Internet or a proprietary intranet.

Figure 1: See the Light

Operators and management at three of Kansas City Power and Light's generation plants can analyze data to measure performance efficiency as production occurs. Data from multiple power production systems is available to any authorized user, anywhere in the company, using standard web browsers over a corporate intranet.

Kansas City Power and Light (Figure 1) has a good example of an intranet-based system. KCP&L installed web-based performance monitoring systems at three of its generation plants. The systems collect data from multiple power production systems and store it in a real-time repository. The data is then available to any authorized user, anywhere in the company, using standard web browsers to view and analyze via the corporate intranet. Both operators and management can analyze the data to measure performance efficiency as production occurs. The system allows staff to easily tailor specific information displays so users are presented only with the information they need to do their jobs.

"For the first time, we have the capability of literally monitoring performance from the plant floor data sources all the way up to management desktops--from the sensor to the boardroom--in one integrated set of applications," explains William Radford, head of operations at KCP&L's La Cygne plant. "We gather the data, review it, modify it as necessary, and present it to our managers in whatever form they need. This is valuable both to operators, who need to know what they can do to make the process work better right now, and to management at all levels of the company."

The web-based system was installed as part of an upgrade to the control systems, and it is based on Wonderware's Terminal Services for InTouch, IndustrialSQL Server, and SuiteVoyager web portal software.

Data collected is used not only for control and monitoring purposes. "If you're a regulated utility like KCP&L, you have to have a dispatch center that knows what's going on and keeps close tabs on production," Radford says. "If you have a performance monitoring system like this in place, you can see exactly what each production unit is doing in real time and can respond quickly if there's a problem. This is critical for a producer that has commitments to deliver power."

What KCP&L is doing is also being done by dozens of other utilities and process plants with conventional DCS and SCADA systems; the difference is that all of KCP&L's communications are being done over a company intranet and access to the data is accomplished using conventional browsers. Any control engineer who has paid the price for proprietary communications networks and operator terminals can see the enormous cost advantages of such an approach.

Jim Burton, director of process development at Cincinnati Specialties, a small chemical manufacturer, also uses a company intranet. "We have set up an intranet here so we can all share the data for analysis," says Burton. But he does not use browser technology. "The data is in SQL and we pull the data with Excel or other office programs or with an in-house graphing program. The data is backed up regularly and is archived so we can retrieve it later."

Burton keeps his distance from the Internet. "We use e-mail to send drawings, information about our products, communication with customers, etc. across the globe. For security reasons, we have maintained a physical disconnect between our control processes and the Internet."

Richard McCormick, process control engineer at Ultramar Ltd., Quebec City, Quebec, uses a company intranet to monitor the refinery and remote terminals. "We are using a web portal package to access process data residing in our process historian and other databases," he says. "This is a true thin-client application. It uses an Internet Explorer browser from any PC on the network, so no package had to be installed, except for small macros provided with the package for Word and Excel access.

"We can access last-minute snapshot data for 99% of our DCS tags residing in our process historian or any ODBC-compliant database, such as our laboratory information management system. We also access live process data directly from a remote terminal hybrid control system located about 300 miles from the refinery using OPC access.

"Any of these web pages, either standard ones coming with the package like trends or locally developed schematics or reports, are accessible from anywhere across the company Intranet as long as security allows it," McCormick continues. "It also means people from outside offices can access all these from the web.

"Our first external' application was real-time access from our Montreal office's marketing department to our jet fuel tank level, volume, and trend data, so they can see how much they can sell without having to call," he says. "We see this as a first and major step toward global read' access to data/information for everybody across the company, like corporate office. But we don't plan to use it for control purposes."

Internet: On the Level

Applications using the Internet have one major advantage over intranet-based systems: Remote systems and browsers can gain access from anywhere in the world. Although intranet systems can also be widespread, they don't have quite the same universal access that the World Wide Web enjoys. For example, all you need to connect a remote level monitor to the Internet is a phone line and a local access number to your ISP. No phone line out there on the gas line? A cellular phone works just as well.

Several enterprising companies are making very good deals on this technology available over the Internet. Siemens Energy & Automation, for example, offers its Instruwatch system for as little as $10 per month.

Figure 2: Touch Something

Web technology-based instrument monitoring systems can be used to monitor virtually any point and provide automatic notification of events by fax, page, or e-mail. Status and alarm conditions of each instrument are sent to a secure Internet web site, typically by wired or wireless telephone.

An Instruwatch system (Figure 2) can be used to monitor storage tank levels, lift station pumps, pressure and temperature transmitters, flowmeters, PLCs, and other plant instrumentation. It provides automatic notification of alarm events by fax, page, or e-mail. Status and alarm conditions of each instrument are sent to a secure Internet website. Siemens says there are no access fees, and no special software training is involved. A web browser interface allows a user to configure alarms and download data.

Endress+Hauser also offers an Internet-based monitoring system. Its Fieldgate web server allows remote monitoring, diagnosis, and configuration of up to 30 HART transmitters anywhere in the world. It supports standard Internet software protocols such as HTML, TCP/IP, and XML.

With such a system, a user could remotely check tank or silo levels from a web browser, input XML data for order-entry purposes, or automatically download data into supply chain management software.

In fact, using the Internet to monitor tank levels is one of the fastest growing applications in the process industry. According to market research company Venture Development, 40% of companies buying new inventory tank gauging will use the Internet to transmit measurement information. VDC also says 44% of all companies use either the Internet or telemetry, and many companies who are not using the Internet today say they would be doing so in a year or two.

Morrison Milling, Denton, Texas, uses the Internet to monitor level in a customer's flour supply silo. The customer, a big bakery, operates six days a week. Previously, Morrison's inventory control system relied on high and low-level switches that triggered an alarm when the customer's silo was full or empty, but it could not determine the actual level. The company tried to use inventory management schemes based on patterns of usage to forecast the bakery's requirements, but this was not reliable.

Morrison installed a Siemens Levelwatch.com system, which constantly measures level in the silo with an ultrasonic level monitor and reports the data to a web site via a phone line. Using a standard browser, Morrison can sign on to the web site to monitor silo levels at any time. So far, the mill is saving $3,500 per month by using the system on one silo.

"I've saved that much in transportation costs alone," says Richard Ross, Morrison Milling vice president. "I can use the trending charts and tell how many lines the bakery is running. I can anticipate the bakery's needs and send a full truck at the right time. We avoid sending a truck too early or getting one back that's partially full."

Monitoring for Maintenance

Another growing web application is remote systems monitoring and diagnostics. Rockwell Automation, for example, offers support services that use a high-speed broadband connection to plant-floor equipment to monitor and collect production data and continuously provide process line performance data to Rockwell's support specialists.

"Having access to such data gives our specialists the ability to diagnose and solve complex application problems more effectively and more efficiently than traditional phone support, where only verbal communication is used," explains Scott Lapcewich, director of service products, Rockwell Automation customer support.

"The highest level of online support is known as continuous control system monitoring (CCSM), in which continuous monitoring is combined with 24-hour technical support provided by systems support specialists," he adds. "By taking advantage of such online support services, manufacturers can essentially extend their maintenance organization to include full-time, around-the-clock automation specialists."

Figure 3: Chase Paper

Finch, Pruyn & Co.'s largest paper production line is monitored continuously as part of Rockwell Automation customer service's continuous control system monitoring (CCSM) program. The program reduced downtime 50% and saved more than $200,000 in the first six months.

Finch, Pruyn & Co., a manufacturer of fine uncoated papers in Glens Falls, N.Y., uses Rockwell's CCSM program. It allows off-site Rockwell Automation process engineers to continuously monitor the control system on Finch's largest paper production line (Figure 3). In the first six months, the program provided proven cost savings of more than $200,000 by reducing the number of unplanned downtime events by nearly 50%.

Vendors Weigh In

GE Fanuc is one of the few DCS vendors that acknowledge the benefits of web technology. Joel Stein, iFIX development manager, says one major application will be alarm and event notification. "An alarm can be configured to automatically send an e-mail to an operator's wireless pager device, alerting him to the exact nature and location of the alarm. The operator could then use a wireless PDA [Figure 4] that's connected to the plant's intranet, access the SCADA system that generated the alarm, and make an immediate assessment of the condition and how best to rectify the situation. All this can be handled within a matter of seconds, and without leaving his present location. This type of functionality produces dramatic cost and time savings."

Figure 4: Trouble Calling

An operator can use a wireless PDA connected to the plant's intranet to access the SCADA system, investigate an alarm, and make an immediate assessment of how to best to rectify the situation, all in a matter of seconds and without leaving his present location.

Stein says his company is all for web technology. "GE Fanuc has long been a proponent of open technologies and realizes the power, flexibility, and utility of web-based solutions throughout the plant and throughout the enterprise," he says. "Our HMI/SCADA solutions work with any vendor's PLCs, delivering true thin-client, web-based functionality to plant-level users. Our plant-wide historian works with any vendor's hardware or software, enabling manufacturers to collect data from every area of the plant and create a complete picture of their production operations. Our web-based analysis and visualization tools allow access to critical information for any authorized user."

Rockwell is equally supportive. "Rockwell Automation is deeply involved in defining the value and capability of web-based interfaces associated with its control platforms," says Dave Appleby, manufacturing and process solutions product manager. "We initially do not foresee web technology playing a direct role in plant-level control; however, we do see huge potential in using the technology to provide manufacturing support, specifically data management and analysis. Initially, Rockwell Automation expects to add web server capabilities to its technologies, which will allow our customer support to assist its customer base with system diagnostics."

Other major vendors are also offering web-based products, and we can expect many will be announced or shown at this month's ISA Show.

GE Fanuc and Rockwell view security as a major problem with web technology. "With all of this wireless and openly-accessible' technology, however, comes an increased awareness of security concerns," advises Stein. "Applications simply must have robust security capabilities necessary to ensure the integrity and safety of the plant."

Appleby says, "When examining web technology capability in process control

it is important to keep in mind that it carries some degree of security risk. It is incumbent upon control vendors like Rockwell Automation to develop and provide security for control devices whether they are in a single CPU or highly distributed."

As with PCs, web security problems do not appear to be insurmountable.

Web it Yourself

If you can't wait for the DCS vendors to bring web technology to you, do it yourself. Tools are rapidly becoming available that let the enterprising process user jump on the Internet. The OPC Foundation recently (August 25) released its OPC XML Data Access spec, which provides support for Microsoft's Web Services. XML DA provides a gateway that allows data to be transferred to and from any OPC-enabled device via the Internet.

If your PC-based HMIs, DCSs, PLCs, and similar control and monitoring equipment are based on relatively modern Windows operating systems, you probably already have a great deal of OPC functionality built in. It might be a piece of cake for you or your software folks to adopt the XML DA spec and jump on the web.

Software Toolbox also offers packages for connecting remote systems to the Internet. "We are providing a solution that not only gets the data from a wireless cellular modem connected to remote PLCs/RTUs/devices, we are making it easy to do and more importantly, easy to manage the details," says John Weber, president. "When you connect to a PLC or RTU via a cellular radio that operates on a public network, that radio has an IP address on the Internet. To get data from that radio, and consequently the device, with a PC or laptop, you address the radio via its IP address on the Internet. MD5 encryption technology in the radios and OPC server management tools ensure the radios only report to OPC servers on computers that are authorized to receive data from the radio."

In the OPC Foundation booth at the ISA show, Weber says his company will be demonstrating a wireless device reporting to an OPC server via the Internet.

Like the PCs of old, you may have to take web technology into your own hands before all the control systems vendors see the light. Fortunately, it looks like you'll have plenty of tools and more friendly vendors to support you this time around.

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