Psst! 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).
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.
Sensible Social Studies
Unfortunately, though unified, IP networking solutions like Sabisu's are a welcome development, they're a very recent exception to the data overload that's plagued the Internet in the 20 years or so since its broad adoption. About 2 seconds after the Internet enabled anyone with a PC to interact with anyone else, promoters and marketers buried us in a blizzard of spam and garbled search results, and that ocean continues to deepen, mostly unchecked.
"Online searches for solutions to technical problems usually start with Google, but it often returns an overwhelming amount of unhelpful answers," says Jim Cahill, head of social media at Emerson Process Management. "This leads users to narrow their searches and join targeted peer groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, where they can read discussions and hopefully find answers faster. These threads are in the language of problem solving, and they're showing up in more basic search results. Also, from smartphones to cloud computing, we have a lot more tools now for file, photo and video sharing, and these allow engineering teams and groups to do more and better ad hoc training and project development."
Brian Chapman, e-business director at Honeywell Process Solutions, adds, "We have a couple of LinkedIn forums, but we debated early on what social media tools to use, and we decided that the real traction would be where engineers can get real feedback and solve problems with other engineers. Facebook and Twitter are mostly about chatting and promotion, and most engineers aren't very chatty."
Unquestionably the oldest and one of the most active social media venues for control and automation is Control.com. The venerable, email-based discussion website has been around since the earliest days of the web, when it evolved from the Automation List to its present form. Ken Crater, founder of Control.com and managing director of Nerds in Control, says Control.com gets about 250,000 unique visitors per month, and has 165,000 messages posted.
"Our participants and contributors have been able to submit a greater variety of problems, and get answers a lot faster than they could in the past," Crater says. "This has been useful because engineers have faced a lot more technological changes, complexity and more urgent projects in recent years. Many engineers are now expected to be experts, not just in three or four technologies, but in dozens, so they can do jobs like merging several networks and protocols. This is beyond any one individual control engineer, and so they must solve them in places like Control.com with multiple informed individuals. For instance, we just had a case in our Modbus forum at the end of August, in which a guy was using a ProSoft card in an A-B rack, and wanted to talk to three brands of variable-frequency drives (VFDs), but each vendor would only support their own. This could have been a nightmare, but the user community helped him, and provided the code that the card needed to talk to these various drives."
Specific Questions + Strict Moderating = Better Answers
Once again, the main drawback to all the far-flung accessibility that discussion groups allow is the same problem that hinders the whole Internet — too much baloney and too little genuinely useful information. Consequently, many questions posted on social media simply go unanswered. But more often, initial questions are too general and vague to allow useful answers, and so they generate answers that are themselves too general, vague and unhelpful. As a result, the most successful discussions seem to be sparked by questioners that are actively engaged in providing further details about their problems and progress in solving them.
Ruthless expunging of spam by discussion group moderators also gives many useful questions and answers a better chance to shine through and reach potential users.
"A useful forum must have good moderators and be well-policed to keep the marketers at bay," says Jon DiPietro, Internet marketing consultant and principal at Domesticating IT. "For example, the ISA's LinkedIn group has three or four people reading all posts, and then flagging and deleting inappropriate ones."
Weise adds, "I read Control.com twice daily, and I've responded hundreds of times, but I wouldn't go there if it wasn't so well moderated. I'm also on LinkedIn and belong to approximately 30 groups. These have discussion areas that are somewhat like web forums. However, only a handful of groups are moderated successfully and limit discussion topics to the group's identity. Most groups are, for practical purposes, not moderated, and their discussion areas are flooded with promotional and recruiter posts, even though there are separate, dedicated categories for those topics. Recruiter and promotional posts in the discussion area is spam. One or two of the automation groups wised up as recently as a month or two ago and banned the spam, but most have not."
Though many of LinkedIn's specialized discussion groups no longer moderate as thoroughly as before, agrees Dick Caro, CEO of networking consultant CMC Associates, he contends that they remain important for many professional users. Caro reports that he's answered many questions on LinkedIn's forums, and he stresses that it's crucial for participants to be specific and complete. "Many questions just don't give enough information to form an answer," he says. "We also see many questions coming from developing and Third World nations because many users there are trying to set up process control applications, but don't have the resources to find solutions in other places."
Even social media tools like Twitter and its 140-character limit can be useful on the plant floor to ping operators, technicians and engineers, who might be too focused on their smartphones and tablet PCs to notice some of the traditional stack lights and LED boards, Caro adds. "Many process operators no longer camp out in control rooms waiting for deviations to get large enough to take action. Instead, a lot of them are roving around more," he says. "And where they once were responsible for 60 control loops, some are now responsible for 600 loops, and so many are using iPads and other tablets to take care of tasks that the process application can't do for itself. Many operators are already getting cellphone calls and email from their process systems, and so why not Tweets as well?"
Moving Pictures, Sharing Videos
Because pictures still can be worth a thousand words and more, social media frequently involves sharing images and videos to provide instruction and describe problems. Though YouTube might not fit the definition of a social media site, it's used as one.
In fact, while many groups and suppliers use videos for instruction and demonstrations, Moxa received a request for help that included a video. "About a year ago, a customer had an issue with a switch, and provided a private YouTube video to show us how he's hooked it up and how it was working," explains James Chiang, Moxa's Internet marketing and e-commerce specialist. "Basically, he'd installed an unmanaged switch to a scanning thermometer enabled by Power over Ethernet (PoE), and had a problem with an RJ45 connector. So we had our technical support contact him, and they fixed the problem."
Lou Grice, vice president of marketing communications and customer care at Phoenix Contact, reports that his company's Facebook page is excellent for establishing initial connections, but its YouTube videos allow viewers to quickly learn about and get fairly deep into many networking and control topics. "Each of these methods has a role in contributing to our community," Grice says.
While asking technical questions and joining web-based social media groups might seem risky, there are several common-sense ways to get answers but still protect applications and intellectual property (IP). For example, many participants use aliases that shield their personal and corporate identities.
"You only risk IP if you get too specific about overall operations and production," Cahill says. "However, most participants are only seeking to solve problems with individual instruments and systems, so this isn't a problem. However, they also must understand their corporate communications policies about phone, email and online privacy, and follow them, as well as their usual rules for trade secrets and financial disclosures."
Cahill adds that many users and companies have used the "IBM Social Computing Guidelines" as a model for their own social media policies.
In addition, just as intranets are organized like the Internet but are more secure, there are several emerging methods for using social media tools and organizing principles in more exclusive and safer settings. SABIC UK's use of Sabisu's software is a good example of this IP-based — but still more dedicated — network.
"Besides previously having different displays, SABIC's users were seeing different data versions at different times, which hindered communications and decision-making," says Tim Sharpe, Sabisu's CEO and SABIC UK's former program and development manager. "Sabisu's real-time data streams give them a shared experience, but in the different views each group wants and with the tools each needs. These days, expertise that users need could be on the other side of the world, and so our and other social media tools like it can make their conversations easier."
Tony Porritt, SABIC UK's applications manager, adds, "We needed a solution in which users and groups could pull all the data they need together, and see it on one page. Sabisu solves the problem of sharing information across our company without having to deploy new applications. It's probably saving us about 80–90% on the cost of delivering information-presentation solutions."
SABIC UK implemented Sabisu software in early 2011 in a phased rollout that began by meeting a niche requirement — better reporting of energy consumption. Next, Sabisu likely will be used for logistic interactions with third parties, business initiatives, engineering KPIs, and environmental health and safety tasks. Eventually, Sharpe adds, Sabisu will be installed at five SABIC plants in the U.K., two in the Netherlands, and then at other facilities in Europe and Saudi Arabia.
To calm concerns about possibly unsecured social media posts, a service called Yammer offers Twitter-like messaging and links, but does it in defined and private email-based domains, Cahill says. One acknowledgement of this model's potential usefulness is that Microsoft announced this past June that it planned to buy Yammer for $1.2 billion. "Email has been the dominant form of communication, but social media and communities are becoming the default way to communicate now," Cahill says. "And in the future I think they're going to be private when they need to be."