Don't Accept the Obvious

July 15, 2002
It's an issue of applying the right solution for the right job, and to not over-sell it

Honestly, I don't know why we are so nuts. I'm referring to what we accept as being OK for the job at hand.

I'm currently acting on behalf of a large Canadian retailer to find some solutions for a retrofit project that will take more than five years to complete. An "authorized" system integrator provided a quote and recommendations for the project that took the price tag to more than $1 million.

What I don't understand is why the obvious is just taken for granted.

Check it out: The application is a DC drive, which can't be replaced using AC drives. The research has been done. So to move a piece of mechanical equipment from point A to B, using photocells to position the device, and where the time required to get there is within seconds, I can't see why the solution requires a paper-machine synchronized drive.

So why was this the only solution offered? When all is said and done, the correct cost will be less than $250,000. It's an issue of applying the right solution for the right job, and to not over-sell it.

I just finished a project for a pharmaceutical company, which insisted on operator interfaces that were brand-specific. I tried to talk them into Visual Basic and a computer with a flat-panel screen, but they would have none of it.

I just reviewed some Visual Basic products for a Canadian magazine, and asked myself how much faster and better that above-mentioned application could have been if Visual Basic and two computers were used. I embarked on that mission.

The original hardware (there were two stations with identical applications) cost my customer $3,800. The application software development I approximated to be around $7,000. The screens were less than 9-in. viewable, and in black and white.

There was a future requirement to pass the operating information vertically to the planning department to approximate product flow, etc., since these processes were critical to their business.

Using a networked computer and a common interface product like Visual Basic just made sense. There are many small TFT types out there with built-in Ethernet TCP/IP, so the connectivity is a snap. The PLCs had serial ports, which were to be used to gather the data and the Ethernet distributes it.

Hardware costs--assuming a normal, small, self-contained box with flash and Windows CE or the like--can be had cheap, and even if we assume a Dell laptop, we aren't more than a thousand dollars a station. So, now we are up to $2,000 on the hardware.

But it was the application software where the real advantages came in. We have color to work with. Would anyone disagree that color can make or break an operator interface application sometimes?

I recreated some of the screens that the interface had using Visual Basic. Because of the development software I had to use in the original interface design, the development was slow because the R&D dollars went into the hardware, not the software.

The first screen was a menu. A list box with endless components,your basic piece of cake. It could have been a menu dropdown, etc., but I wanted to take the same approach and keep it as similar as I could.

Access to information was required, and the nice thing about using an integrated product is that this is done for you. However, using an ActiveX communication control, I can access the data from anywhere in the PLC with ease.

It became very clear very fast that the most used objects in this operator interface were button, indicators, and text boxes. Ohhh.

The hardest issue I had to deal with in the original job was the coherency of the presentation of the data. Small screen, lack of continuity of information, and a general feeling of never being sure that the desired effect would ever be achieved.

I recreated the exact project in less time because I was copying the design. No thought process. Didn't code the whole thing, but believe me, it's a no brainer.

Then I changed the design with the tools I had available to me. Design took even less time, it provided room for growth, and allowed for data interchange between machines and computers. No vertical limits here.

Color, pop-up windows, menus, dynamic graphics, and automatic reporting (which wasn't available in the original job). And the real kicker: It took me an afternoon to do. Really! And how about that right mouse click?!

The job cost would have been at least half, not for the time as such, but with the knowledge that the right tool is being used. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Don't accept the obvious. Save your money.

Jeremy is publisher of The Software User Online. Contact Jeremy through

Sponsored Recommendations

Power Distribution Resource Guide

When it comes to selecting the right power supply, there are many key factors and best practices to consider.

Safe Speed and Positioning with Autonomous Mobile Robots

Here are some tips for ensuring safe speed and positioning for AMRs using integrated safety technology – many of these tips also apply to automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Faster, Accurate and Reliable Motion Control With Advanced Inductive Technology

This white paper describes new technology offering improved position measurement capabilities in reliability, speed, accuracy and more.

The Value of Dual Rated AC/DC Disconnect Switches

Why is it necessary for me to have a disconnect switch installed in my application?