Automatic reaction

With the boom in automation, a vast array of advanced technologies is now available to help us move the increasingly larger amounts of data. Colin Carter explains.


Press Articles, industry gurus such as Jim Pinto and organisations including the US Automation Research Council (ARC) agree that this is a boom time for automation.

Whether it is in the home, the car or in making goods more efficiently to compete with developing economies, it has become a case of machines v man, with cost being the ultimate determinant, rather than machines replacing man.

Much of this growth is driven by technological advances — especially now we have smart field instrumentation moving increasingly larger amounts of data around a plant — via a variety of fieldbus systems — or the world with the connectivity the web offers.

Fieldbus has long been touted as the answer to the world’s communications problems, but only recently have giants such as Emerson and Siemens agreed to co-operate and share Foundation Fieldbus and Profibus technologies in an attempt to move away from proprietary systems.

As long ago as 1991 calls for fieldbus technology sharing and the desire for one ‘standard’ were loud and clear from users — and some see this as the biggest step forward since then.

Of course, end users have sensibly gone ahead and exploited proprietary technologies — despite the narrowing of component choice. A recent ARC advisory group suggests that the market will grow at an astonishing 22 per cent, per year for the next five years.

There are many recent examples of users opting for fieldbus systems. various Endress+Hauser instruments, for example, have been added to a Profibus PA system linking some 140 devices on a new split-flotation and zinc cleaner project at BHP’s Billiton Cannington mine in Australia.

The automation specialist’s instruments — such as ultrasonic level sensors, coriolis flowmeters, magmeters, pressure and temperature transmitters — are linked through Allen-Bradley and Contrologix PLCs.

Another example is AS-Interface’s AS-i networking system, which has been used for control lubrication at Lafarge Cement in Northfleet, Kent, to network proximity switches, flow monitors, zone valves, pressure switches and mobile reset push buttons.

The technology replaces hard wiring of gear spraying systems, which spray grease on to chalk wash drums. It has cut downtime, as well as having only one control panel rather than the previous three.

And ABB has announced that 200 of its Commander 500 controllers are to be installed at oil and gas refiner Bapco’s upgrade of its gas dehydration stations in Bahrain’s gas well network.

The controllers are part of a SCADA system where components are linked, and communicate using the Modbus protocol.

Much new fieldbus-ready hardware has also been introduced recently. Automation, test and measurement group Yokogawa, for example, has introduced a Foundation fieldbus version of the EJX910A multivariable pressure/flow transmitter.

Other recent developments include Profibus completing the development of its Tool Calling Interface (TCI) which it claims will make it much faster and easier for users to install and configure engineering tools. Foundation Fieldbus has launched an initiative to develop a standard interface for remote I/O into its architecture, and define a structure for integrating tightly with high-speed ethernet (HSE).

Siemens, too, has announced an interface linking AS-I with Profinet in the form of the IE/AS-I router to enable the exchange of information and diagnostic data across the two systems.

In addition, National Instruments has announced a new 12in touch panel monitor with built-in Modbus connectivity, while the new RMQ-Titan range of push buttons, indicators, switches and stop actuators from Moeller Electric includes AS-i modules and connecting cables.

Many of the above developments are concerned with tighter and easier integration of components, and more open systems — vendors realise both are necessary to take market share.

One of the driving forces for Fieldbus was the reduced cost of wiring, but will this be superseded by wireless communications? Emerson, for one, is championing wireless technology as a viable alternative, and the company has launched its 2.4GHz smart wireless solutions in mainland Europe.

In the US, the Instrument Society of America (ISA) is working on a wireless networking standard (SP-100), further adding credibility to this method of networking as a process management tool.

And it seems that manufacturers are responding. last year, for example, Honeywell Sensing and Control announced it was to use Crossbow Technology’s wireless sensing network in its XBW sensors product line. Routers are also being sold for industrial applications from companies such as Digi International, D-Link and SDC Systems.

All the information about these networks has led to data management being a big area of development for many. So much so, that it is now a discipline in its own right, and contracts are issued solely for the data management part of a project. One recent example is that won by Tessella Support Services for the implementation of a data management system for the Waste Monitoring and Compaction facility at BNG’s Sellafield plant.

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) is also an issue that uses a lot of data. Companies such as UGS specialise in providing PLM software and services, including a recent contract to supply its Teamcentre Express PDM component for Siemens Gas Turbine Parts’ systems used in land-based plants in China. And Schneider Electric has teamed up with PTC as a technology and services partner to improve its product development processes using PTC’s Windchill PLM platform. PLM is now a stated strategic business initiative within Schneider.

Other suppliers of PLM software and services include CoCreate Software which supplies the fast-moving hi-tech electronics industry where development cycles can be as little as a few months, Active Sensing, which produces PDXpert software aimed at small manufacturing companies and Dassault Systems, which has an ongoing partnership with IBM, which sells its solutions.

As you can see from these examples, today’s automation problems are as much about data as the hardware involved. It was always going to be this way in the computer age — now I can’t wait for the associated ‘leisure age’ we were promised.