Ayers Island is a 60-acre island located two miles from the University of Maine in Orono, Me. George Markowsky owns the island. He is working with the Town of Orono to turn the island into a place for high-tech development and security modeling, the process of using computer simulation to examine and monitor activity such as terrorist and biological attacks. The island will also be a residential and recreational location for the public.
Collecting data from hardware devices on a plant floor used to be difficult. After years of device-driver growing pains, the Ole for Process Control (OPC) device communication specification was born. The specification, which provides a common interface for programmatic data access between hardware and software, allows automation software users to interface with any piece of control hardware with an OPC-compliant device driver.
The OPC server sits between a software application and a plant-floor device, and "serves up" data from the device to the application. Rockwell Automation developed its own communication servers for its Allen-Bradley devices and networks. Siemens, Wonderware and Intellution licensed their communication software from Cyberlogic Software Inc., a Troy, Mich.-based OEM software development firm. Schneider Electric private-labelled Cyberlogic's suite of device drivers as the industry standard for Modicon networks. Schneider has been shipping the MBX Driver Suite with its network adapters for more than a decade.
Cyberlogic's OPC servers support Modicon's Modbus/Modbus Plus/Modbus TCP protocols, as well as all Rockwell's communication protocols.
The server software installs nicely, even without the quick-start guide, which was missing from my copy. I found the help system useful. You have to install the OPC server and device drivers or agents, such as Data Hiway Plus or Ethernet, at the same time. The software suite is run-time protected, which is not uncommon with automation software. I was a little surprised that there were no "wizards" (software applications that lead you through configurations). So back to the help file I went.
I had a Modicon Modbus (Modbus TCP) slave device, a Rockwell Micrologix PLC (serial connection), and a Rockwell PLC-5 (Data Hiway Plus and Ethernet). This required that I configure one Modbus agent and three Rockwell/Allen Bradley agents.
Configuration was easy. The Cyberlogic device agents are virtual drivers so you simply apply the device connectivity, which determines the protocol the agent will use to communicate with the device. Once you configure the agents to communicate with the physical devices, the OPC server needs to know about them to be able to "serve them up" to your application. When you right-click with your mouse, it leads you to a menu with an "auto-configure" selection, which automatically finds the configured agents and devices. Naturally, the data available is dependent on the device. The configuration screen for the server shows you the connected device agents. Clicking on one of them reveals a "maximum concurrent request" (MCR) number. This allows you to throttle the device connection to minimize the resources required to maintain the connection. The driver agents support unsolicited messaging to minimize polling activities, which can reduce traffic by more than 90 percent. Once configuration is complete, Cyberlogic stores the resulting data in a Microsoft Access database.
Since the OPC server conforms to OPC standards, you can access the data in these devices using any OPC-compliant software package from companies such as Iconics, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric and Microsoft.
In my opinion, Cyberlogic's way of using the resources available to it is unique. The software can access data from any connected device, regardless of the application. On a single form in Visual Basic, you can display data from all three devices using any combination of the four agents. When you have two connections to the same data point, the server will use the highest priority communication route available. Should connectivity to the primary route fail, the server employs the secondary route. When the highest priority connection returns, the server re-establishes connectivity. Access to data is intuitive using the built-in interface, so you can view data without having a third-party application.
A neat backroom technology of the software is it monitors communications between devices and the server, and automatically meters data requests should loading get too high for the PLC or the server. It is a smart and very useful technology in a slow network environment.
This OPC server suite is the real deal. I wrote a small Visual Basic program to access data from the PLC-5 from both the Data Hiway Plus driver and the Ethernet driver. I populated the form with timer data. Read times and form-update times were so similar that the numbers changed at the same time. The minimum update time from a timer is 10 milliseconds. This was "real time" enough for me.
The software does not support Rockwell's pass-through connectivity. Upon checking with the company, I learned that it is not a highly requested feature. The OPC server suite does support Control Logix networking pass-through however.
Knowing Cyberlogic's company history, I expected great things and wasn't disappointed. For Modicon (Schneider Electric) and Rockwell applications, I highly recommend these OPC servers.
Name: Cyberlogic OPC Server Suite
Vendor: Cyberlogic Software, Inc.
Application: Data acquisition and control
Freelance reporter Peter Fretty recently visited Madison, Ind., and toured automotive-parts manufacturing plants that have benefited from automation. One such plant, Arvin Sango, has a unique automation story: Almost every piece of automation equipment found in the factory was the idea of a shop floor worker who recognized a production process that would benefit from automation. The company says it encourages employees on the shop floor to keep in constant communication with upper management and share ideas for improvement. Managers take their employees' opinions seriously, and often implement them.
In a business as complex as manufacturing, discussions on ways to streamline plant operations usually involve plant managers, chief executive officers, other high-ranking decision-makers and, when necessary, outside consultants.
But Arvin Sango Inc., a Madison, Ind.-based manufacturer of automotive exhaust systems and stamped components, is proving that sometimes the most innovative and successful ideas for improvement come straight from the men and women running production lines.
Since the company was founded in 1988, the production team has been involved in a kaizen program in which team members regularly brainstorm ways to improve operations. According to Scott Hubbard, general manager, operations, the company automated dozens of production processes based on suggestions from shop floor staff during these kaizen blitzes. Kaizen, which is a Japanese term, loosely means "good change." Some companies hold kaizen meetings to discuss business practices with employees and look for better, more efficient ways of running operations.
"We have a unique level of stability that encourages [our factory floor employees] to stretch outside their normal boundaries and continuously look to improve their individual areas, whether through increased automation or other types of process improvement," says Hubbard. "We have almost come to expect them to make recommendations and be an active part of the organization's success."
Nicole Browning, a production team member, agrees that the company's orientation to its shop floor workers is unique. "[At] other plants I've worked for, [one] had to worry about being laid off and getting bumped to different shifts," she says. "Other plants rarely have the direct communication with managers that we have at Arvin Sango. We [at Arvin Sango] know that if we want to make a change to improve our jobs, we can go through the kaizen program ... [Sometimes] ideas are actually implemented by the member or members who come up with them, and management is willing to lend a hand if needed."
Star Dupree, another production team member, echoes Browning's opinion. "Employees are treated with respect and our ideas are taken to heart as we are the ones running production," she says. "It is a breath of fresh air to know our opinions are respected and actually implemented. Opinions and ideas from the production work force are respected because who would know better than the operator on how to improve production and quality?"
One improvement idea that the company implemented involved the firm's largest steel press. The steel press makes steel shells for one of Arvin Sango's largest production assemblies. Shortly after the new press was up and running, production staff recognized that steel sheets were misloading far too often, and workers wanted to find a solution to the problem. "Knowing we needed to stop misloads was the easy part," says Randy Lockridge, the company's production manager. "Trying to figure out where it was coming from is where it got tough. One of our maintenance men came up with the idea to install a camera system to help us determine which end of the sheet feeder was causing the problem. Now, the vision system shuts the machine down when there is a problem to make sure that a misload does not cause line failure or excessively high scrap."
Lockridge says his staff came up with the camera system idea during one of 50 kaizen blitzes they held to discuss the 2,000-tonne steel press. "It was typical of the kind of ideas we now expect from the talented people we have working here," he says.
The kaizen program played a major role in decreasing the number of unscheduled weekend workdays, adds Lockridge. In 2003, employees worked 23 unscheduled Saturdays and seven unscheduled Sundays, whereas in 2004, employees worked only eight unscheduled Saturdays and no unscheduled Sundays.
"We have doubled our GSPH (good stamps per hour), and gone from three shifts to two shifts," says Lockridge. "In this specific example, daily downtime decreased by 70 percent, and misloads in January 2003 were 8,300-a number that by October 2004 dropped to only 15 [misloads]."
Another employee idea the company implemented was to design and build stationary stands that allow problem-free transfer of parts between dies. The employee came up with the idea during a kaizen blitz in which production team members discussed problems related to the plant's automated substations. Each time the steel press would stroke, the original strands of the press, which were attached to each die, would bounce and misload. The staff member's idea solved the problem.
Does that mean that all ideas are approved, or that each idea put into practice is a success? Not quite. But workers are rewarded regardless because, Lockridge says, the fact that his team is merely thinking of ways to increase company profitability is good enough. "Most of us learn from doing," Lockridge says. "Most of the time, we don't get [things] right the first time. But bad suggestions are the seeds for many great ideas."
| Four ways to motivate your production team |
1 Start a norm, but be patient. Establish a norm at your company of sharing ideas and expressing opinions, and keep it going. "If people do not see this as a norm that will last forever, they won't buy into it and you will lose before even getting started," says Lockridge. Speaking from experience, Lockridge says changing the overall employee perspective takes time like any other change.
"Quite a way back, an employee came to me and asked to do it," says Bill Thrasher, who has managed maintenance and facility services at the company's 192,700-square-foot Whitby, Ont., plant for almost 20 years. "We said sure, and got the forms and did it, and that individual graduated as a journeyman and went on to be a group leader." A more formalized apprenticeship program began when the production department had difficulties hiring mechanics, says Thrasher, an M.M.P. graduate who heads the Durham chapter of the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada (PEMAC).