For troubleshooting, preventive maintenance, software upgrades, or connectivity to enterprise-level applications, the web-enabling of industrial machines might seem like an obvious must-have technology option that adds relatively little to the purchase price of machines. Indeed, a growing percentage of industrial machinery builders already provide web connectivity as an option or standard feature, with more industrial original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) jumping on the bandwagon every year.
But the actual end uses of the technology vary widely, and many potential customers are reluctant to embrace web-enabled machinery. At the machine level, much of the impetus for web-enabling has been a function of OEMs providing technology to end users, rather than strong demand from customers to OEMs.
Tough Communication Constraints
Fluid Air Inc., manufacturer of process equipment for pharmaceutical companies, only recently began to build some of its equipment with technology to elevate machine-level data to higher systems. The Aurora, Ill.-based company has incorporated Ethernet-capable processors and single-point I/O with its fluid-bed coater/granulator/drier and its high-shear granulator, as well as in the retrofits of pharmaceutical process equipment made by other manufacturers.
We're not getting directly pushed in this area, says Jim McAndrew, director of control technologies. We're not having people come up and say, 'I want to be able to view machine data on my web browser.' Rather, people were making observations that it is a real bear getting information from each piece of equipment.
The pharmaceutical industry may not be a good example of industries that rapidly embrace new technology — it's a notoriously slow adopter of computer-based technologies, partly because of regulatory restrictions. For example, explains McAndrew, quality assurance personnel, with somewhat limited access to the plant floor, traditionally have gathered process data through a laborious patchwork process before taking the information off the plant floor for analysis. Fluid Air is working with customers to develop strategies to gather manufacturing information for use both in the factory and elsewhere in the enterprise while still complying with regulations.
We're collecting an awful lot of data on the equipment, but all of that is in the manufacturing area of the pharmaceutical plant, where only certain people are even allowed to enter, McAndrew says. So for us, web technology is about getting that information out to a larger corporate audience. That helps our customers improve their business by having access to all this data we gather, but it's data that very often gets very dusty and unused back there on the plant floor.
Providing the data in a usable format has been a stumbling block for Fluid Air and its customers. For many years, a lot of vendors, not just ourselves, have been putting data in SQL format, but that only takes you so far, McAndrew explains. You've got access to the data, but unifying that data between the equipment vendors and then the quality (system) vendors has presented an issue. We have a lot of interest in the work that's being done by the World Batch Forum with its XML schemas that might give us some third-party definitions for sharing data back and forth in XML format between big ERP systems, laboratory systems, and our plant floor data.
McAndrew says the addition of web-enabling technology has been well received by end users thus far. By essentially making their machines web servers and serving their data in a web-enabled format, we've been able to offer our customers a solution, without having them invest in a bunch of new software, he explains. They can use their web browsers and just buy one server. They don't have to invest in new infrastructure because they have the plant-floor Ethernet now and, of course, they've always had the business Ethernet set-up.
Much of the vendor community is backing the premise. By providing a real-time view into machine performance, industrial OEMs can greatly increase customer satisfaction and repeat business, notes Kevin Roach, vice president of global solutions business with GE Fanuc Automation. When support personnel receive calls but don't have access to real-time data, each call is often treated as an emergency because the service organization is flying blind--even though the problem may be minor or have a simple work-around." The wrong expert might be deployed, or the right technician might be sent out with the wrong replacement parts, increasing mean time to repair (MTTR). That causes customer dissatisfaction.
There is definitely a need and a movement toward importing low-level information up through the infrastructure, says Glen Taylor, PE, product manager with Berkeley Process Control. I guess everyone would say that we need and want the technology to move [data] across the web, but it's shrouded in security concerns and other issues like that. One such issue faced by Berkeley's semiconductor industry customers is standards development, such as trade organization Sematech's e-diagnostics initiative.
Some end users are reluctant to let even their industrial OEM partners have access to their machinery data, and often forgo potential benefits of having communications capabilities on the equipment.