Can Automation Users Solve Social Media?

Some Automation and Network Engineers Use Social Media to Ask Technical Questions and Secure Useful Answers From Experts. For Others, It's a Puzzling Environment That's Hard to Figure Out

By Jim Montague

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IN12Q4 CoverPsst! Come here. Lets' talk for a minute. If you've got an industrial networking problem you can't solve on your own, then you've got to let someone know about it, right?

Long ago, this meant discussing it with the gang in your in-house engineering department, but most of those departments are long gone or a lot smaller now. Still, there's nothing better than immediate discussion with colleagues who've been in the same pickle you're in now — especially when it comes to solving industrial networking problems that cross multiple technologies, disciplines and areas of expertise.

Calling up suppliers and system integrators can help, of course, but it can be hard to find the right person by dialing them on the phone or emailing them one by one.

Well, just as you can send many emails at once, more control engineers have been seeking answers from many colleagues at the same time by using online chat rooms, discussion groups and other social media tools. In these venues, they can secure help with devilish networking challenges, ask technical questions, get specific answers from experts who solved the same problems, and maybe even revive some community spirit (see sidebars throughout the article).

"Web forums work pretty well as a medium of discussion for resolving not only technical issues, but business issues as well," says Dan Weise, support specialist at Lesman Instrument, a multi-vendor process control distributor in Bensenville, Ill. "There are few business issues at Control.com, but PLCs.net frequently has topics on bidding jobs, hiring people, pay scales and dealing with customers. In my mind, web forums that cover industrial automation and control are its social networking medium. A lot of support and discussion happens on them."

Mary St. John, training director at Opto 22 and OptoForums moderator, confirms how mutually supportive many users can be. "One user just had some logic that wasn't running fast enough on some gates he was opening and closing to restrict vehicle access," she says. "Because our Snap PAC strategies can be multi-threaded, I came up with a solution, and posted it on our forum. But then we were also pleased to see how many high-powered users jumped in with other possible gotchas that really added to our solution."

The best part is that engineers in organizations and industries worldwide, whom you've never met or even knew existed, can read your question and provide the best answers and solutions for it. Granted, this isn't divine providence, but it's pretty close. "With phones and email, you needed to know each recipient," says Mike Miclot, vice president of marketing at Belden. "The user called the distributor. The distributor called the vendor. The vendor called R&D, etc. With social media, we can address everybody at once. For instance, on Aug. 30, we learned via some source blogs that some of our GarrettCom Ethernet switches needed a fix; we found a solution in 24 hours, and used the same local network to distribute the fix to our whole community."

More recently, these Internet Protocol (IP)-based pathways have evolved to include all kinds of dedicated ties to process control applications. For example, several staffers at Saudi Basic Industries' (SABIC) U.K.-based petrochemicals division formed a new company in 2009 called Sabisu to help their former employer unify data, displays and communications around a cloud-based hosting environment built on Microsoft's SQL Server and Windows Server 2008. SABIC UK runs a 1 million metric ton/year ethylene plant and Europe's largest low-density polyethylene plant, and Sabisu on Premise software and server allows its plants to maintain their existing DAQ and DCS information on-site — much like a secure, corporate intranet. However, Sabisu then tunnels out via OPC-UA protocol; distributes, or live syndicates, real-time data streams via Sabisu's cloud-based service; and finally uses web browsers to display its data streams on social media-style dashboards, which are personalized by Sabisu Hub software to match each community's preferences for timelines, instant messaging, video chat and the ability to tag groups of data for joint analysis, setting alerts and sharing with SAP and other enterprise-level packages (Figure 1).

Social Butterfly

Figure 1: Sabisu on Premise and Hub software combine to allow 'live syndication' of real-time, plant-data streams, which are then personalized into dashboards that client communities can share using social media tools.
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