Our HMI heroes

Embedded Intelligence writer Jeremy Pollard continues his series of columns on those influential few who made enormous impacts on the shape of industrial automation.

By Jeremy Pollard, CONTROL DESIGN Columnist

SO YOU NEED an HMI, do you? How about some toggle switches in a dust-proof box?
Not a chance, you say. You need one of those Windows-based beauties with rich graphics, vast animation options, communication servers, and a multi-user environment.

The reason you can have all these features requires us to remember Steve Rubin and Dennis Morin for pioneering such productive and visually appealing technologies. They highlight our next foray into automation history.

Rubin was working for Foxboro—a DCS process control vendor—when he moved over to Crisp Automation. Crisp was using a Digital PDP 11 minicomputer for process control, which enamored this computer engineer. However, Crisp was later sold, and Rubin just wasn’t comfortable there anymore.

So, Rubin and his wife and unborn child moved back to Massachusetts in 1981, where he started Intellution. Though it wasn’t the first one of the block, Intellution was the first to penetrate the industrial marketplace, and became the de facto standard for process graphics and SCADA systems in all areas.

"Ignoring Microsoft Windows 2.1 was the biggest mistake made by Intellution. Wonderware became the de facto standard for Windows-based SCADA, and Intellution played catch-up from that point onward."

Intellution’s developers started on the PDP 11 chipset and migrated to the IBM PC platform. Graphics generation wasn’t available, so innovation dictated that they replace the character-generator chip (UVPROM) with a graphics character set. Rubin’s wife entered the hex codes on a PROM programmer at their kitchen table.

Then, in 1984, industrial users were introduced to Intelluton’s FIX software. It was the first product that ran on the new MS-DOS operating system from an up-and-coming, private company called Microsoft. With FIX, Rubin and his associates had developed the first multitasking operating system, which allowed communications drivers to run in separate “threads” from the graphics sub-system, providing awesome performance.

In 1987, Intellution developed the first distributed control monitoring system, called FIX/DMACS, which allowed data to be anywhere.

Subsequently, ignoring Microsoft Windows 2.1 was the biggest mistake made by Intellution. This happened because the software was bulky, slow, and costly to implement with hardware, so it wasn’t on Intellution's radar screen.

However, Windows 2.1 was square in the sights of Dennis Morin, a renegade software design engineer from California. Morin had worked at Hughes aircraft and then at Triconex, a fault-tolerant control system hardware vendor. He learned FIX because Triconex used it to demonstrate its Tricon controller. He also was developing a proprietary MMI product to be called TriView.

In 1986, Morin was laid off by Triconex. Interestingly, he began using FIX under DOS to make some money, since it was a product he knew and was good at using. However, he also was a Mac user and giddy about the Apple GUI, so he wanted to put the two together.

Morin got some of his closest technical friends together to start Wonderware. It was a company that was going to develop SCADA using an Apple MacDraw-type interface, and do what FIX did.

Wonderware was expected to be a temporary name for Morin’s product/technology, but it stuck because it was unique, fostered conversation, and featured some racy ads with underwear. Anyone who ended up at Wonderware’s offices can attest to the cultural differences between it and the rest of the industrial world. Their platform reflected this too.

Then, a funny thing happened. On the same day, April 1, 1987, that the Wonderware boys signed their company’s incorporation documents, IBM announced that its OS/2 Presentation Manager (PM) was going to use Microsoft Windows PM. This was a flag for Morin because it meant that Windows would be a hit someday soon. So, Morin and company started developing on the Windows platform.

In 1988, the first Wonderware implementation was installed at a plant that was running FIX, and in an application that Morin previously had done work as a consultant.

Wonderware was tight with Microsoft, and was a beta tester for Windows 3.0, which further cemented their relationship. When Windows 3.0 hit in 1989, Wonderware’s InTouch was introduced on the same day.

The turning point came when Wonderware, needing inter-computer communications, developed NetDDE. Microsoft bought this technology, and implemented it in Windows 3.11 (Windows for Workgroups). Wonderware’s development path now was paved in gold.

They became the de facto standard for Windows-based SCADA, and Intellution played catch-up from that point onward.

Morin’s understanding that the PC would dominate was a stretch for a Macintosh lover, but he went with his gut. He really had no other Windows-based competition until about 1993. He now is CEO of a Canadian wastewater treatment start-up involved in an innovative sludge processing system. Wonderware is now part of Invensys, having been bought by Siebe in 1998.

Similarly, Intellution was absorbed into Emerson in 1995 before being purchased by GE in 2002. Rubin left for other ventures in 2001. He now is involved with an East Coast start-up for remote water pumping station via video surveillance.

  About the Author
Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Publisher of The Software User ONLINE, he has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 20 years. Browse to www.tsuonline.com or e-mail him at jpollard@tsuonline.com.

Free Subscriptions

Control Design Digital Edition

Access the entire print issue on-line and be notified each month via e-mail when your new issue is ready for you. Subscribe Today.

controldesign.com E-Newsletters

Biweekly updates delivering feature articles, headlines with direct links to the top news stories that are critical to staying up to date on the industry — company news, product announcements, technical issues and more. Subscribe Today.