The importance of communication
Automa, software house operating in the industrial automation sector from almost 20 years, is focusing on horizontal and vertical integration in order to allow industrial information systems to communicate effectively between them.
By Valerio Alessandroni
Automa was born as software house in the late eighties when the term "production cell", a structure composed of two CPUs (one for supervision and the other for I/O management), was still mentioned. This structure was rassuring lower sensibility towards operating systems restrictions and allowing the development of highly advanced graphic interfaces without giving importance to the process reliability problem.
The company's notoriety goes back to the launch of Super-Flash, the simple and reliable development system for supervision applications. From the early 90's Automa specializes in the HMI sector, realizing from the beginning the importance of offering a standard product, capable of adapting to any situation and communicate with the field independently of the available peripherals. For this reason Super-Flash is always supplied with numerous communication drivers.
The concept of "field communication" was developed and extended to a complete one as "integration of all industrial information systems" in the late 90's. In order to help its own customers to understand better this concept little widespread in those days, Automa designed a diagram with the business information systems subdivided in four levels (planning -ERP-, programming -EPS/MES-, coordination -HMI-, and control -PBC-), which highlighted the necessity, latent in those days, to allow those levels to communicate between in order to share simply and quickly data and information in both ways.
In those years Automa started to acquire experience in the EPS/MES level in order to understand and solve data collection and production management issues. Today the offer of the software house is wide and articulated: it offers both easy-to-use and high reliable products, as well as, the experience to develop numerous made-to-measure projects. At HMI level, for example, Automa supplies qualified software engineering services that allow the development of functional and high reliable products, besides Supervisione Libera product line, a complete range of products to develop easily supervision applications. In the EPS/MES area, the company is present with both services and projects for industrial production programming and coordination, as well as, with products like MainteX, an application for scheduled maintenance management, or Dolphin a software created for HMI and EPS/MES systems communication.
Besides operating in the above mentioned sectors, Automa has became an expert in both horizontal (communication between the various levels) and vertical integration (communication between different peripherals, systems, technologies, plants, etc. in the same level) of industrial information systems.
EPS/MES world and vertical integrationIn the past, the software development at the EPS (Enterprise Production Systems) level was faced marginally by ERP or SCADA production companies. Both production companies associated standard modules for production management or data collection to their products that did not satisfy the necessity to have a management software for the entire production sector, able to communicate effectively with both the field (supervisor) and the management system.
Today it is clear that the EPS level is a different "world" with characteristics and requirements different from those of the automation and management systems sectors and that it needs ad-hoc solutions.
In the last years, Automa had the chance to study and understand better EPS specific themes as the one of data collection."Those working with HMI packages often don't understand which data the higher level needs:they bring up all the information available, overloading the database with useless data", explains Borali, Automa's product manager. "Nowadays we are able to select which information is important and useful and then to propose ourselves as partners developing applications at a production management level".
Recently, Automa has acquired expertise in the EPS/MES environment focusing on the connection interface for automation and administration/management fields, increasing its own expertise and knowledge in the various technologies. The software house, therefore, has grown from a business point of view with new products for the market, and with an offer that allows EPS applications developers to acquire data directly from the field.
"We are not able to manage the administrative/accounting level, regarding the production management, we start from a certain level to go then down: typically we take the job order and we put it towards the lower levels, collecting and giving back all the information useful to track orders and production lots", affirms Borali.
Automa has structured itself in order to suit EPS level new requirements focusing on vertical integration, that is the communication between the various levels, nowadays more accessible thanks to technological convergences but more difficult because of cultural differences. In the past, those working in one of the four business information systems levels talked their own specific language. "Still today languages are different, but at least regarding technologies, people is starting to exchange opinions about some elements", refers Borali. "For example, if coming back to ten years ago, some Windows technologies weren't either named in the ERP environment. The ability to do object-oriented programming and the definition of models and architectures based on distributed components make the same technology useful to the various levels and help technicians to move among levels in order to start a "cultural contamination". One thing at a time, those in charge of the various parts start talking". Slowly the required superimposition of adjacent expertises, which is at the basis of any system integration success, takes shape. A technological convergence has happened but still remains a cultural problem: those talking about automation do not understand the ones of ERP level, those in the middle, at EPS/MES level, they should talk both languages, coping with both automation and the higher level issues.
Automa's offer in the EPS sector is composed of very specific products. Research and development activities in this level brought up the development of SIR, an EPS system capable of automatizing data collection in the production department, as well as, the communication between this and management systems on one side, and the field on the other. The system has already been experimented in the rotary printing sector, but its architecture is applicable with the necessary modifications to all production sectors. "We put ourselves in the vision - explains Borali - to supply developers working at this level with integration projects (whereas required) and products".
Technological convergence and horizontal integration"Regarding integration we will now see two aspects", continues Borali. "The first one is the vertical integration before mentioned, that connects the various information systems levels between them, the second one is the horizontal integration, where plants of various types have to interact between them". An example of this kind, developed by Automa in 1995 for ISMES, was the automation of the Gran San Bernardo tunnel, where the entire fire and TVCC parts along with medium-tension distribution and technological plants converge on various supervision workstations. In this case, a technological homogeneousness has been forced through software and hardware converters in order to make possible the integration of the various plants. "Horizontal integration - adds Borali - is becoming more important now because, while in the past people was forced to use 'ingenious' solutions to put plants together, now it is possible to take the electric energy controller and make it speak with building automation buses, automation controls, etc. That does not mean that everything is easier because there remains the before mentioned cultural problem. Moreover, horizontal integration is not necessary only at the HMI level". At the EPS level, for example, the definition of a production processing model may take into consideration data relative to some services and auxiliary plants (security, quality, maintenance, air conditioning, energy, lighting, etc.) in order to evaluate better production costs for each single article or products lot. In a time where production flexibility is considered as a high value, the accurate evaluation of production costs becomes an important and competitive advantage.
Lately, the technological convergence took Automa to enter in the Building Automation sector."In automation, there has been a certain growth of tools for the development of human-machine interfaces solutions (as Automa's Super-Flash)", affirms Borali. "Those tools became comfortable and suitable for the most part of the end-users working in the automation field without the necessity to have programming expertise. But this kind of tools is also important for other applications types where the human-machine interface has been, until now, a little underestimated". An example is given from the offices where it is possible to keep all the utilities inside the company under control by using a SCADA/HMI package. In particular, Super-Flash has very interesting features suitable for this market. In fact, the Runtime solution is free (the development system is available for free download from Internet) and has, therefore, economic values compatible with the electric market, for technicians willing to suggest a visual display unit to control the electric plant.
In the new headquarters, Automa decided to use EIB buses to manage the lighting plant with the double objective of reducing energy consumption and showing the easy use of Super-Flash in the Building Automation. From an end-users services point of view, a plant of this kind offers the advantage of flexibility, obtainable thanks to bus systems configuration. In fact, the functionality of a device does not depend on its physical wiring, but on how it is being configured, that is the programming of the functions that associate control commands with elements 'to be controlled'.
The customer first"In this period, we found ourselves to operate in the production management sector also in comparison with ERP underway projects, where often people suggest solutions without understanding well end-users requirements", affirms Borali. "Suppliers try to convince end-users about the validity of their own solutions but without listening them first". Automa understood that this was a problem, but recognized also that listening customers is not as easy as it seems: if so many companies, even the most important ones, are not able to do it, there is obviously a complex obstacle. End-users usually explain what they do need, but the most of the times they explain what they do want. And not always both things are the same. "Assuming this, we defined a project management oriented completely to user requirements", refers Borali. "The user requirements phase is fundamental and at the basis of each supply procedure. Help customers to evaluate their requirements, counting and organizing them in priority is the only way to give a predictable duration to the projects, as well as, keep them under control satisfying, in the end, end-users requirements".
For this reason a project management methodology (Income) has been planned in order to help efficiently end-users to define accurately their requirements.
"Developing this methodology meant an intensive work by an internal team, which started from the basic concepts of project management to then go down to Automa's requirements considering the company's main characteristics and and particularities", affirms Borali. The result was a procedure almost formalized and adopted each time a new problem comes and composed of a preliminary phase when opening a project, requirements analysis, feasibility studies of possible solutions and a development phase for the previously selected solution. In this way, besides obtaining a "product" satisfying customers requirements, it is also possible to keep development costs and times under control, giving customers the possibility to become an active part in the project, as well as, the chance to keep the solutions under control. "We want customers satisfaction be measured a priori, so that be possible to predict when they will be satisfied", explains Borali. "All user requirements, in fact, are described, measured and weighted with objective indicators".
ConclusionsAccording to Borali, multidimensional integration (horizontal, vertical and transverse), interactive communication with customers and technological convergences will become important themes in the future. In particular, communication will become a key factor for the success. It will be, therefore, necessary to know how to combine these concepts in the better way in order to offer integrated and competitive solutions.
BOX: MainteXMainteX is a software package for scheduled maintenance management which can also carry out functions for predictive maintenance once connected to the field. "Traditional maintenance management systems are not connected to the field or based on real-time or online conditions", explains Borali. "On the contrary, MainteX acquires data directly from the field and allows to set a conditioned maintenance. Since conditions can be calculated with algorithms available to those developing the HMI part, the predictive maintenance becomes possible.
For example, if end-users want to keep the functioning of an engine under control with a standard scheduled maintenance, a great part of its potential functioning is being disregarded because they want to be sure the engine is not breaking down. They go on, in fact, with suppositions regarding normalized functioning and, therefore, approximated. On the contrary, MainteX may receive the effective functioning time of the engine from the field and adjusted depending on the rotation speed, the functioning temperature and other parameters. The possibilities in this environment become many and open. MainteX is, therefore, a product that can be integrated with information systems offering a specific value to the management level. It interfaces directly with supervision packages acquiring from the field the necessary information for an intelligent maintenance in order to both avoid interruptions and use materials in the best way.
MainteX is available in two versions; both of them can be bought through internet. The Standard version aims at those managing a complex plant or system and therefore needing an unlimited number of cards and elements to maintain. It is supplied with an end-user license for a stand alone PC and includes Dolphin, a software created to help developers of EPS/MES Windows applications. The Express version is ideal for those managing less complex plants or that, having to choose between numerous maintenance systems, want to restrict their own investment in the evaluation phase.
BOX: SIRSIR is a solution to be placed between business information systems and supervision and data acquisition systems for industrial processing.
The main functionalities are both the reception of the production plan from management systems in order to make it available to the production department, and the collection of data gathered in the production and raw materials consumption phases of all productions executed in order to associate them to information received from management systems giving then them back for the next production phases.
The objectives are: to speed up and guarantee the information flow, track the production lots and balance each production phases. SIR is able to associate planning data with production data, make the department production workflow visible, manage report, keep production phases under control and send the information to higher levels.
BOX: The ability to communicateAutoma is taking external communication subject in a new way. The communication is not addressed anymore to a single target (the technician, for example), but towards an extended world. "Automa has always given importance to communication but in the last years there has been a turning-point", affirms Elena Bertillo, responsible in charge of Automa marketing department. "While in the past the objective was to approach the market to make a name for Automa, from some years now, we are not only informing but also communicating with the market. Therefore, the new targets (regular and potential customers, suppliers, etc.), we are now addressing to, are not normal communication receivers but also an active part".
This new point of view brought the demand to receive information, besides providing customers with it. "With our help, the new targets may define their requirements", continues Bertillo. "They give us essential information to create Automa business, as well as, develop new projects and solutions ad-hoc. The marketing function inside Automa has been, therefore, reviewed and developed considering it as an important point for bidirectional information exchange". New actions to contact directly the new targets (such as event organizations) have been added, as well as, the use of interactive communication means. The customer is, therefore, brought in the front and its requirements analysis became the starting point for each new proposal. For this purpose, a new methodology has been evaluated inside Automa in order to analyze correctly customers' requirements and create solutions keeping development costs and time under control.
This methodology is one of the various services Automa is offering to its customers. All the services have two main objectives: complete the offer and exchange information with customers. They are reached, for example, through articles prepared along with customers: on one side they highlight the possibilities of Automa products and, on the other they can promote their activities. And is the same for the technical support, training courses, presentations with customers or the website, more interactive than ever.
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