Going places – fast

Early PC cynicism is fast being replaced by gathering momentum and an apparent thirst for low cost, shrink-wrapped and entirely open development systems and control solutions by Brian Tinham

PC-based systems in the process and manufacturing sectors of the UK alone will account for a staggering 800,000 PCs this year – 25% of the total forecast sales of 3.5 million PCs in Britain for 1997! So says Rod Blackwell, business manager for Microsoft. They’re not all going into SCADA and automation; that figure includes CAD/CAM, MRP/ERP, supply chain systems and so on. But, it’s still a lot of PCs and a lot of PC software – and hence Microsoft’s interest in industry.

The figures certainly back up the top PC SCADA system vendors’ claims for a massively accelerated acceptance of PC solutions throughout automation – including ever more in the process industries. Talk to any of Wonderware, Intellution, Intec, US Data, Rockwell Software, Iconics, PC Soft, etc and you’ll get a similar story.

US Data’s Adrian Wise, for example, says that growth for his company in 1996 was 300% in the UK – much of it for process SCADA. It seems that the last couple of years have seen an industry `U’ turn on PCs; the talk – and increasingly the action – is of open systems and shrink-wrapped software.

Don Allen, director of corporate relations for Wonderware: `Proprietary systems suppliers can no longer claim to have the grip on this market that they once enjoyed.’

Why? There are several reasons. For example, PC hardware power and reliability have improved enormously, and the Microsoft environment has gained virtually universal acceptance, particularly with Windows NT 4.0. Few were happy to move far beyond quite limited SCADA under 3.1 – but now NT 4.0 has proven both its capacity and its resilience for serious systems (C&I, December 1996, page 23).

And then there’s the big `openness’ issue. Choosing open (or at least de facto standard) over proprietary systems immediately solves training and support problems. Everyone can work with PCs and Windows. Most important, it opens the door to lower cost diverse system integration – and the apparent holy grail of Computer Integrated Manufacture (CIM).

But there’s more. Firstly, there’s the sheer range of functionality and power available. It spans MMI, SCADA, batch software, Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and, most recently, also plant information resource browsers and remote viewers using the Internet and corporate intranets.

Intellution, for example, offers a range of products all based on its Fix SCADA v6.1 32bit true client/server offering which runs under Windows NT v4.0 – now on CD-ROM. Notionally at the entry level is Fix MMI; above is the just-launched VisualBatch batch tracking and control software (news, page 19). Meanwhile, its PlantTV is unusual – designed to display a mosaic of screens covering sources from SCADA pages to live video links.

US Data’s latest FactoryLink ECS also spans a considerable range. The company claims it’s scalable from a simple MMI to a SCADA system and on to MES capability and full-blown enterprise-wide coverage – with Internet/intranet facilities and OPC connectivity. There’s also tremendous platform (hardware and operating system) independence.

PC Soft, too, goes for some multi-platform support; its Wizcon 5 32bit SCADA runs on Windows NT/95 and OS/2 WARP. Again, the claim is MMI to enterprise-wide coverage, with connectivity via: DDE; Wizcon’s Virtual File, PLCs and Network interfaces; and SQL. PC Soft also claims that programs for recipe management and batch tracking can easily be created using its procedural programming language.

Looking at Wonderware’s latest, its new FactorySuite (news, page 21) includes: the InTouch SCADA (v5.6 and 6.0 for 95 and NT v4.0, plus the FactoryFocus view node); the InControl soft logic system; IndustrialSQL Server; Scout remote Internet/intranet visualisation tools; and the full range of drivers. The company’s FactorySuite Plus adds the InBatch 4.2 flexible batch management system and InTrack production management and tracking.

For many would-be users there remain question marks over higher end offerings like this. Just how generalised can you make batch software? The answer is probably `you can’t’! But, certainly the offerings I’ve seen from US Data (partnered with PID to offer the latter’s OpenBatch software as BatchLink), Wonderware (bought SSE’s Direktor, which led to InBatch) and now Intellution do provide good and easy-to-use foundations.

Intellution’s VisualBatch, for example, is a second generation release, following on from its earlier Fix BOS. It’s got a lot of appeal – you get intuitive, graphical batch processing software, OPC (OLE for Process Control) connectivity and adherence to ISA’s S88.01 batch and IEC 1131 programming standards. Also, Microsoft ActiveX Controls and objects can be embedded (so you get reusable code); it includes the Microsoft SQL Server database; and simulation facilities allow for pre-installation testing. It covers recipe management, batch execution, production tracking and reports.

Incidentally, you’ll have noted the trend towards World Wide Web usage. It’s becoming a popular route for disseminating software updates and trial software – often up there free to encourage your take-up. You’ll certainly see this from Intellution, US Data and Intec. Also, more and more of the SCADA vendors are offering `on-line’ support and troubleshooting over the Internet. Wonderware is the latest to introduce this.

But PC solutions can now do even more. Soft logic – PC SCADA plus fieldbus-attached remote I/O – is fast emerging as a realistic alternative to the now old SCADA-plus-PLC route. This is what’s giving real weight to the call for an extra `C’ for control (as well as supervisory control) in S-`C’-CADA. Intellution’s purchase of Wizdom Controls, the soft logic company in the States, last year, provides a classic example. It gives Intellution Wizdom’s Paradym-31 IEC 1131 language-based graphical programming environment for control programs – and catapults the company into soft logic.

Intellution is not alone. Both Wonderware and PC Soft, for example, have launched soft logic products. Wonderware’s is InControl; PC Soft’s, WizPLC. InControl was launched at last year’s States-side ISA Show. It’s open, running on any Intel and NT platform; it’s IEC 1131 control programming language compatible; and it links to open device networks including Profibus, DeviceNet and Interbus-S – promising to take hardware PLCs right out of the loop. Claims for PC Soft’s WizPLC are virtually identical.

Clearly, there are many reasons for PC SCADA’s growing popularity. One more we must mention is ease of use. Adrian Wise: `SCADA software is only ever about 10% of any project. Another 10% is the PLC and its hardware, and the remaining 80% is the engineering. So bringing down the cost of engineering makes it attractive to system developers. Hence our emphasis on the development environment and open standards.’

His comments hold true for all of the front-line SCADA software providers – which brings us to an inescapable point – the sheer apparent similarity of so many of the SCADA offerings. Even the whizzy development tools look the same. How do you choose between them? It’s not easy.

You may well still hear claims like: `ours is the only true client/server system’; `ours is interrupt-driven, not polled’; `ours is the only package that’s platform-independent’; `we have the greatest range of device drivers’; `ours is best segmented to allow portability between systems’; and `remember the limitations of systems that aren’t native 32bit on NT’.

Be warned! While there is sense in some of these – particularly the last – with advancing technology today, many turn out to be nothing more than red herrings – with any validity long since evaporated. Certainly, of the systems integrators I spoke to, all were pretty dismissive – some were downright incredulous at the claims! The reality is that some claims and counter-claims tend to look at best pretty shaky upon close examination.

Of course, there are differences – like the operating systems/platforms supported and the scalability. Platform support remains an issue particularly where legacy systems are involved. But increasingly everyone wants NT anyway, so this too is fast becoming an irrelevance. However, while everyone offers MMI and SCADA facilities, not everyone covers unlimited I/O, node and user count – it’s horses for courses. And only the top few have gone as far as building generalised batch systems and MESs on the way towards the goal of CIM.

In fact, today, one of the biggest differentiators is pricing policy. Shrink-wrapped PC SCADA pack selling is following ever more closely commodity market practice. One of the latest deals is US Data’s. Wise told Sys.Build that the company is virtually giving away its development systems. `We’re charging only for run time SCADA software according to project I/O’, he said. He claims an entry point around £1,000.

Meanwhile, David Taylor, Northern European manager for Intellution, explained his reluctance to give price details as: `We look at the business benefits users can achieve through our products to arrive at a solution’. His company, however, still charges a 25% premium for its development systems. Run time licenses are again staged according to I/O break points, number of users, drivers, etc. Entry level is £1,000, rising to £8,000 for an unlimited SCADA system.

But it’s Wonderware that stands out here. The company’s announcement last month that it’s bundling its complete family of software into just two shrink-wrapped packages – with all-in pricing – is a radical departure (news, page 21). Don Allen: `The move mimics Microsoft’s Office and BackOffice bundled offerings. Now, engineers will have integrated application development tools covering the entire spectrum of plant floor usage’.

Price for its FactorySuite is £10,500. FactorySuite Plus is £12,500. For that you get a CD-ROM with development and run-time versions of its MMI, SCADA, control system, Internet and intranet tools – everything – plus electronic tutorials and documentation. It’s an 80% price reduction on the original individual items!