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CONCEPT - Lights-out Factory

The next wave of the Internet has already started to build. In this  wave, every electronic and mechanical manufacturing could be connected. That means everything in the manufacturing enterprise will be part of an overall network that's based on Internet protocols, or TCP/IP: computers, printers, peripherals of course; the fieldbus network connecting automated manufacturing components like PLCs and the devices they control; your personal electronics, and things like the lights, heating and air conditioning, locks, clocks, telephones, and cell  phones.

This next wave of connectivity is going to enable you to do much, much more than you ever thought possible with a computer and a network. We look at the rapid changes in the technologies that operate behind the scenes, and that power the point-and-click information  revolution. The new connectivity and communications tools will boost productivity, profits, speed to market, and flexibility -- for those manufactures able to change.

Soon, you can expect to see connectivity become a feature of everything you buy for your enterprise: every device will be connected to a network. And that network will be based on the Internet: your corporate intranet, a wide-area network (WAN) or virtual private network (VPN) based on TCP/IP, the computer protocols of the Internet.

The first decision your IT managers will have to make will concern your network, not your computers. If you use an intranet -- a corporate network based on Internet protocols (IP) -- you've probably noticed the Web being used as the front end for an increasing number of businesses.

Other managers, supervisors -- just about everybody involved in manufacturing -- will be spending a lot more time online, on the network.

The major difference will be that they won't necessarily be using a computer. Once every device is connected, we'll be working online through other devices, including wireless phones and also through the manufacturing machines and systems that are connected. "This will truly empower the knowledge worker on the shop floor by giving him or her access to information on machinery maintenance, repairs, upgrades, process improvements or whatever else he or she needs access to at any time, right at the system that needs repairs," says Jim Fall, president and CEO of Manufacturing Data Systems, Inc. (MDSI), an Ann Arbor, Michigan firm that develops and implements motion control software applications.

The signs are already there: commerce over the Internet has grown to $101 billion in 1998 --that is, actual sales of products and services to consumers or businesses over the Web, according to a study by Internet Indicators. This sector has also been growing at an incredible rate of over 50 percent per year. Industry analysts expect e-commerce in the business-to-business sector to explode in the next few years.

There are also more computer -- and Internet-enabled devices available on the market, from industrial motion controllers to vision systems to medical instruments to automatic teller machines. These embedded electronics were originally developed to control one small set of functions, and to communicate with a single control system. As technology developed and the Internet became an indispensable part of almost every manufacturer, users started to demand more functions and wider connectivity for such devices. Hence the growth of embedded Web browsers.


Embedding Web connections into a wide range of non-computer devices requires an operating system that can fit in the restricted memory of a cell phone or process control system. Currently, there are three main contenders: Windows CE, embedded Java and a new version of OS/2.

Microsoft's Windows CE is a small operating system for portable devices that allows communications with Windows-based personal computers. The first devices to use Windows CE were palm-top computers, but a growing number of consumer electronics such as game systems, set-top boxes, pagers and Web-ready cell phones use embedded Windows CE.

Sun Microsystems embedded Java technology uses the Java Virtual Machine running on top of the embedded device's operating system. Java is platform independent, yet allows a range of high-level 
functions with relatively small amounts of coding. And because it's platform-independent, the same type of functionality can be given to different products. It's being used in products from mobile phones to printers and network switches, medical instruments and industrial process controllers.

IBM is almost ready to release an embedded Web browser called NetDiver, which is based on Sun's Java technology. NetDiver takes on 700 kilobytes of memory, plus another four megabytes of RAM for Web caching. Running on an embedded version of the OS/2 operating system,

it's a sign of a new possible direction for the development of this alternative OS to Windows. It could be found soon on medical instruments, handheld computer terminals used in warehousing and manufacturing, process and machine control system s as well as wireless phones and automated teller machines.

Within manufacturing concerns, the various enterprise-wide systems like ERP, MES, SCADA, and even newer acronyms like Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) are communicating with each other, and sharing data. Increasingly, this is done through Internet connections.

The emergence of the Application Service Provider is another signal that the Internet is becoming the computer software platform, more than the type of operating system or computer manufacturer. In the ASP model, the user or software customer doesn't own the software, but rather "rents" it -- pays for the software based on the time they use it. The application stays on the developer's computer server, and the customer connects to it through the Internet.

ERP systems, Computerized maintenance management systems from such companies as RDMI, Tabware, Wonderware and PSI have or soon will have ASP-type services, and the ASP model is spreading through the Enterprise oriented applications.

The Internet and its communications protocols have a number of advantages. "IP is imperfect, and it's everywhere," says Al Smith, vice-president of software development at Bluestone, which develops technology that enables ASPs and ASP software. "Perfect technologies rarely get out of the lab," he explains, because to be perfect they typically only fit a very limited set of criteria. The Internet, however, is easy to use and widely accepted. Because it's everywhere, there is a great wealth of solutions, and a lot of expertise to help users implement and troubleshoot what they're trying to do on the Internet.

The Internet is easy to use and widely accepted. Because it's everywhere, there is a wealth of solutions, and a lot of expertise to help users implement and troubleshoot what they're trying to do online.


"The biggest reason for the use of the Internet for machine-to-machine communication is cost," says Don Thompson, a consultant with Deloitte Consulting in Toronto. Since most corporate IT infrastructures already use intranets, it makes sense to base new communications efforts on it. They don't need to add new physical networks or hire more experts to maintain a different type of network.

Basing machine-to-machine communications on IP means setting up protocols and security in software. This makes it so much easier to allow certain people access to certain sections of the system, according to whatever criteria you like; maintenance people need certain parts of the data, but not others; operators would be able to access a limited number of devices; managers would be allowed to monitor, but not change anything, etc.

Furthermore, IP is robust enough to handle the communications. It supports real-time communication (as opposed to batch processes) and it's faster and more robust than the virtual private networks or value-added networks that came before it. As Jim Fall points out, it has bandwidth to spare.

The Internet is where all the exciting developments are happening. Technologies such as Java and ActiveX allow developers to build a wide range of tools, controls and functions to address almost any manufacturer's needs.

New technologies such as the Extensible Markup Language (XML) are now making it easier to share data between different application programs, and to set up computers to take actions based on criteria for instance, to order supplies when inventories reach a critical low point.

With the Internet used within and between enterprises, communicating between management, production planning, execution, maintenance, sales, accounting, shipping and purchasing activities, the totally automated, "24 hour, lights-out factory" might not be far off. It has already arrived in some plants: the manufacturing operation that can be operated completely by remote control, with no one on site other than maintenance personnel when needed. Using Internet protocols makes the development of new communicat ions simple, fast and relatively cheap. And while the Internet seems popular now, it's going to grow even faster as more Web-ready devices hit the markets.

All this means is that having a handle on all the data that manufacturers need to maximize their efficiency and profits, as well as the ability to control every action in the operation, is going to be in your hands

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