Selling SCADA’s one thing; MES needs some marketing

Jan. 23, 2009
“Independent” industrial automation software vendors may still exist

It’s now more than a decade since Wonderware’s acquisition by Invensys’ precursor Siebe and Intellution’s earlier absorption by Emerson were widely seen as marking the end of the short-lived era of the independent PC-based SCADA/HMI vendor. That such a North America-centric view should ignore what was happening both in Europe and Australia is not surprising; that it also ignored a third U.S. contemporary and, in Intellution’s case, near neighbor, is more perplexing, but is perhaps best explained by Iconics’ decision to focus on a comparatively limited number of target industries and customers and its resultant relatively low profile. It’s a policy which has served the company well over the ensuing years to the point where, since Schneider’s acquisition of Citect, few are going to argue with its own assessment of its position as the world’s “largest independent supplier of real-time visualization systems.”

And of course “independent” isn’t an entirely unambiguous term. Wonderware, for example, uses it to stress that, unlike, say, Rockwell, Siemens, GE Fanuc or indeed Schneider/Citect, its parent has no PLC hardware capability. Equally others might point to Johnson Controls’ minority stake as at least having the potential to influence the privately held Iconics.

What is undoubtedly true is that the low profile approach has continued in Europe and specifically in the U.K. where, to our knowledge at least, Iconics has never held a press event or even issued a press release. Whether that has actually done it any harm is open to question. It certainly hasn’t prevented it building up an impressive reference list including Honda, Britvic, Nestlé—despite the latter’s worldwide agreement with Wonderware–and Heathrow Terminal 5, although not, as they’re quick to point out, anything to do with baggage handling.

And you can add to that, so we’re led to understand, a string of important OEM deals. Recent project wins include facilities management at Dublin Airport and Bristol University, carbon emissions tracking for BT and real-time building monitoring for a major U.K. retailer. Despite these successes, however, it does appear that the low profile approach is about to change with the appointment of the U.K. company’s first full-time marketer, Robyn Bradley, one of whose earliest tasks was to organize a series of seminars on “Real-Time Performance Management,” while another was to invite INSIDER to the last in that series at Microsoft’s Reading facility in late November.

Why now?

So why now? Well, one answer might lie in the assertion by UK managing director Clive Walton that Iconics is “no longer just an HMI/SCADA organization.” Like almost all of the other SCADA vendors, Iconics is now looking to Real-Time Performance Management or RPM—MES to you and me—to provide the same levels of growth in the future that it has enjoyed in the past. Underpinning this ambition is the belief that success in the space between the real-time world of the plant floor and the transactional world of the enterprise depends on being able to deliver decision support in real time, based on real-time data from the plant floor.

What, in this context, is real time? “Real time is fast enough,” says Chris Bromley, Iconics sales manager for Scotland and north east England, fast enough, that is, to take a decision and implement it in time to affect the course of events to which it relates. “RPM,” says Bromley,” is about analyzing data and not spending your time collecting it.” And SCADA vendors such as Iconics believe they have “ownership” of the real-time data.

The problem, or perhaps paradox, however, is that that ownership is not exclusive; nor indeed can a SCADA vendor hope to succeed in the MES space relying simply on the data from its own SCADA system. So at the heart of the Iconics offering is a product which can take in data from any source and pass it not just to its own applications, but to any application including ERP. If that sounds a lot like Incuity, then that’s perhaps because Iconics’ BridgeWorX looks a lot like Incuity. Indeed it must have given Iconics a considerable fillip when Rockwell took Incuity out of the ‘independent’ arena.

Around BridgeWorX Iconics has built a whole raft of real-time reporting tools and a set of analysis tools covering OEE, downtime and other KPIs. In addition, and of particular significance in process, is an alarm analysis solution based on the EEMUA 191 recommendations aimed at reducing operator overload that followed the accident at Milford Haven in 1994.

Two stages on

Now, however, it’s taking those capabilities not just one but two stages further by providing a set of tools for creating web interface dashboards aimed at the plant operations level and subsequently migrating those components to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to enable corporate users to have real-time access to production level information. Add to that the capability, for example, to incorporate GeoSCADA data, thereby enabling the user simultaneously to monitor and compare the performance of multiple, geographically distributed assets, and its clear that Iconics sees itself pioneering the transfer of new technologies from corporate IT to the manufacturing arena and thereby straddling the interface between them.

Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the latest version of the flagship Genesis SCADA/HMI product. While Iconics is quick to reassure existing users that support for and development of Genesis32 will continue in parallel, it’s clear that it believes that the future of real-time production level applications lies in the 64-bit world and, hence, with such capabilities as Genesis64’s stunning 3-D graphics.

Why would you want 3-D graphics? Cast your mind back 25 years to the first PC-based SCADA packages and their impact on the HMIs of that era, and then ask yourself whether today’s generation of young engineers, weaned on interactive games and 3-D CAD, will regard such capabilities as luxuries or essential.

Back to the boxes

“Independent” industrial automation software vendors believe they can already detect signs that their rivals among the hardware vendors are reacting to the economic downturn in an entirely predictable manner, deemphasizing software and concentrating on “selling the boxes.” That, Iconics would argue, creates a huge opportunity to press home technological advantage. As one attendee at last month’s seminar series commented, “There shouldn’t really be room for Iconics in this marketplace. The fact that they have made room is reason enough for them to be taken seriously.”

Recent comments on the suitability of Windows CE as a platform for SCADA) prompted this response from Copa-Data vice president of Global Sales Alexander Punzenberger:

In our experience the Windows CE platform can do much more than many people think. Originally its potential was limited, in part due to the available hardware. In 1998, we imported the first CE devices to Europe from the U.S. and ported our zenon software to the new platform. The performance was a long way short of that of current devices, but even then these graphical HMIs provided a real alternative to text-based operator terminals. Moreover, having no rotating storage media made them perfect for vibrating or explosion-proof environments, providing true industrial computing.

Windows CE also offered a cost-effective alternative for building decentralized systems without a central computer and with applications running on several devices, sharing their performance as in a cluster. Our experience has shown that CE can efficiently control even very large systems, with customers reporting systems with more than a million physical data points. A major advantage over thin client or terminal client solutions is that not even a network failure renders operation impossible.

Our 10 years experience of Windows CE suggests that a productive CE solution should meet the following minimum requirements:

Everything from the equipment picture to alarm management, from OEE analysis to maintenance management, from single workstation to control system should be handled with the same tool on both PC and CE platforms. This improves the overview in the engineer’s toolbox, facilitates engineering, lowers training costs and protects investment.

The system should be hardware-independent so that best-of-breed solutions and the best available hardware can be used without any problems arising. Even if hardware components have to be changed, legacy applications will then continue to work on the new hardware.

The solution should be resolution-independent, a seemingly small detail but one with enormous consequences. Resolution independence means that the user can choose any display size so that it makes no difference whether the project is running on a small CE display, a wide screen monitor or a multi monitor system.

Connections to other machines and software, be it to different PLCs or to SAP, should be made directly, without the need for third-party software, thereby saving time and reducing the potential for error.

Windows CE 6.0 does provide the opportunity to create cost-effective SCADA solutions. However, simply porting projects to CE is not enough. Maximum convenience and a continuous implementation are essential.