Jeremy Pollard

Jeremy Pollard

Jeremy Pollard has been in the industrial automation industry for more than 25 years. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator.

Thursday, 17 November 2011
VB6 has been around forever. There are hundreds of thousands of developers using VB6 (Classic), but some have made the switch to VB.NET. This global environment includes C++, C# and F# languages, as well as Microsoft Express language development environments and Visual Studio environments.
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
I recently received a call from an engineering buddy who was contacted by our customer about a level controller that was acting up at one of the water tower sites we control.
Friday, 16 September 2011
Twenty-five years is a long time in automation software years - a very long time.
Tuesday, 28 June 2011
This is the second part in a two-part review of Ignition. Last month's column was an introduction to the software, including a review of installation and its interface. This month, I will focus on the graphic editor, how it ties into the OPC database, and how we can use PLC software to create tags.
Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Ignition is a product that you must take note of. Formerly FactoryPMI, which I reviewed some two years ago, Ignition is the same, but different.
Tuesday, 29 March 2011
In the past, I have talked about OPC servers, devices and HMI with Visual Basic, which all present data to operators for real-time and historical information. Tabular data is the most popular method of producing reports, but this may not be the best approach for everyone in the organization. Operators often need to provide an up-to-date production report that is accessible from anywhere, for both shop floor and top floor management.
Thursday, 20 January 2011
Microsoft has entered the world of application-specific development with its Visual Studio LightSwitch offering, presently available as a free software program (like the Express versions of its popular development tools). This environment can be used for your own personal development and education - for programmers and non-programmers alike. Non-programmers can use it to create small applications, while experienced developers can add very cool features with a newly defined object model. The install file is fairly big - almost 300 MB - and it can be downloaded for immediate access. There are various components that need to be installed with LightSwitch, such as SQL server, Silverlight and Visual Studio 2010. I installed the software on an existing Windows XP virtual machine, and it installed and ran without any issues. Microsoft contends that you can develop an application without writing a single line of code. While this may be true, learning a bit about object models and methods would still be a good thing to do. Should you need or want to write code, you can do so in either Visual Basic or C#. I was intrigued by the fact that you can create a desktop or web-based application. Imagine that you have a database of existing data, such as historical pump flows, flow volumes and temperatures. The database currently has to be on a Microsoft SQL server. If you have existing Access databases, there are export programs available to migrate your Access data to SQL. When migrating this data, there will be tables, records and data field formatting, commonly known as data types, to deal with. A number such as 23.22 could be interpreted as a floating point number or as currency. This is an example of data typing. After installing the product, it became very obvious that Microsoft knows that non-programmers will be playing around with LightSwitch, as there are many examples and training aids to guide you through the process of developing applications. There is also the ability to add extensions (like plug-ins for a web browser), although none exist right now. The LightSwitch community will grow, I'm sure. As with Microsoft Access, you can visually create forms, display data, create tables and queries, and create relationships between tables and records. One of the really cool features is the ability to have the resulting application run on a desktop or within a browser. There are three different entry points. If you compile the application as a browser client only, then the user(s) can only view data. This is perfect for floor-level data access - operators who just want to look at data. The security level inherently protects the data. I do some work for a township's water control, so when I created my database, I used a pump house data structure, which included data for chlorine, turbidity and the like. What the operators want to see when they look up the data is a table with minimum, maximum and average daily values. If the data resides on a networked server, they can view the data with a browser or locally, but the web interface allows others in the township to also view this data. The table was populated, and a query/screen created with ease. I like this! The user interface is very clean and functional. When a table is created, you can connect tables together (relationships), add computed data fields to the record and embed an external database into the table (an entity). Adding screens is educational. Part of the object model for databases is table, record and field. Collections are a big part of any database implementation since you would typically want to retrieve a collection of data for a specific purpose, such as all chlorine values for all sites that exceed a certain threshold. The collection returns the names of the sites whose chlorine values exceed that threshold. This would be a developed user query. The creation of the application does require some upfront design and logistics, such as navigation of screens, but you would have to do that anyway. As with all things that are made for ease of use, the software sometimes boxes you in because of the clicks that you just made. Sometimes it's just as easy to write the code and be done with it. You can do that, but the object of this column is to introduce LightSwitch as a platform to learn from and play. It is easier to deal with this if you have an application in mind. Make this part of your learning and education arsenal, and maybe your kids will enjoy it, too! To download a copy, visit www.microsoft.com/visualstudio/en-us/lightswitch. Jeremy Pollard has been in the industrial automation industry for more than 25 years. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Friday, 12 November 2010
The Instrument Society of America (ISA) has changed its name a few times in the last 10 years. It is now called the International Society of Automation. Like its name, the association’s marquee trade show and technical conference has also gone through some changes — most recently changing its format to more of a technical conference rather than an exhibition. The ISA shows of the past had more than 25,000 attendees, with huge Hollywood-type booths and hospitality events that would make your head spin. They also included tons of software companies showcasing their products. This year, something changed. The “big boys” left; Rockwell, Emerson, Siemens, et al, went their separate ways. User group meetings sprung up, and the industry lost a large part of the pull to larger trade shows and conferences. Enter ISA Automation Week 2010, held at the Westin Galleria in Houston, Texas. It was not held in an exhibit hall, but a hotel, albeit a big one. By all indications, the show was a success. It was sponsored by four major players, two of which are strictly software companies — OSISoft and Wind River. OSIsoft fosters a product called PI Systems — a process database that allows process companies to have historical data to mine. Wind River is an embedded operating systems company whose products and technology are present in many smart devices. The conference attracted more than 1,500 people. Many paid about $800 to attend the 2.5-day event. That price included lunches, coffee break refreshments, and a “Morley Unplugged” dinner of yummy BBQ (a Texas treat), accompanied by ISA’s own Carol “Cow Tip” Schafer and her guitar, with some original automation music tunes. Dick held court and tantalized the audience with stories based on words the audience gave out. I gave a talk in the Human Asset Management track called “The Grey Hair Lament — Don’t let the sun go down on me.” The discussion focused on the fact that, if we are not careful, we (the grey hairs) will not be able to retire. We know too much. We try to teach and pay forward the experiences we have had, but there is no one to tell it to. This is a common problem, I think, since this track was one of the highest attended tracks at the show. There was an exhibit hall, which had in excess of 100 exhibitors of varying disciplines. The show floor was only open during breaks, lunch and the networking evenings. In my eyes, there was a major presence missing on the show floor — software vendors. There were just five software-only companies exhibiting. Even the technical sessions dealt more with the application of process rather than the application of software. I talked to some vendors on the show floor who said they were bored due to the lack of activity, while others liked it because they could conduct business. But a common problem that I saw on the floor was the lack of general enthusiasm.  I will say, though, that I was very impressed with the way that ISA treated the attendees and the speakers. Each paying attendee got a USB stick with all of the presentations on it. Next year’s conference is in Alabama. The level of success of Houston will be determined by Alabama. I hope to see you there. Jeremy Pollard has been in the industrial automation industry for more than 25 years. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Wednesday, 27 October 2010
This month is a bit of a departure from my usual software review. Instead, I'm reviewing a book that I believe every budding automation and control engineer should read - Automation Made Easy, by Peter Martin and Gregory Hale. Factory automation is a very complex subject. I have been in this business for more than 30 years, and the amount of technologies that have come and gone is as interesting as the technologies that remain and, of course, those yet to come. We have a problem with our youngsters, though. How do we get them engaged in engineering and automation? ISA (International Society of Automation) has represented our industry since the beginning of time, and is championing the quest for getting kids interested in automation. Hale is the editor of the ISA monthly magazine, and is bent on trying to make a difference. I think that he and Martin have succeeded with this book. I believe that this book should be required reading for every high school student, so that they can at least understand what the possibilities are. The book is 200 pages long, with a bibliography of eight and a half pages - that's a lot of research. A large glossary accompanies the text, which is a necessity for the rookie. Some of the initial chapters may be boring for those with experience, but certainly not for those who are new to automation. Not surprisingly, this book doesn't assume anything. For instance, factory automation needs a process to automate. They explain what a process is (by using beer as an example) and the different kinds of processes, in a language that everyone can understand. I don't want to be misunderstood here. The book uses concepts and terminology that may be foreign to some, but with some additional research, that possible hurdle can be jumped. The first few chapters introduce the reader to various concepts and visions. Continuous processes versus discrete processes are easy for us old guys, but the newbie gets a thorough explanation from the authors. The review questions at the end of each chapter are very good in capturing the essence of each chapter, and help the reader track down the important points. They did a good job introducing the concepts of process control, closed loop control and open loop control. Batch processing is also covered well. Then I lost something. Chapter 6 deals with advanced process control (APC). Cascade and feedforward control concepts are introduced, and it is a big jump from the previous chapters. The authors are trying to provide a solid platform, but there is a leap that is needed here. All of a sudden, concepts such as lag time and dead time are introduced; not so basic anymore. They do a good job of presenting the material, so my argument isn't with that, just that one may have difficulty in the transition. Some off-book research may need to be done. If they covered everything in a linear fashion, the book would be 1,000 pages long! Loop optimization and simulation are introduced next, and there are some very old concepts presented that are still valid today. Then, they introduce the real meat of factory automation - software - and, yes, I'm biased. Safety, SCADA, HMI, MES and ERP are all introduced in a way that will keep the reader engaged. There is also a chapter on systems integration, which will be of interest to the self-motivated. The final frontier in the book deals with business issues that automation interfaces with. The concept of the factory floor and automation being connected to the bottom line is something that has emerged over the last decade.  I am impressed with the fabric that these two guys have woven. They have used their obvious experience, along with a smooth transition structure to the modern day stuff, to help youngsters better understand where things have come from, where they are, and where they may end up. I was surprised to see little coverage of fieldbus systems and network protocols, but that's just me.  This book is an easy read. The technical stuff is very low key, and an excellent launching point for a budding automation and control engineer. It is available for purchase at ISA.org. Jeremy Pollard has been in the industrial automation industry for more than 25 years. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator in the field. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Monday, 20 September 2010
Imagine that you have a number of worker bees on the floor using PC-based HMIs or thin clients, and they run into a situation that they haven't seen before. They fire up the maintenance website and search for the machine name, for example. There they find that three weeks ago, "Joe" ran into the same issue, and described how he fixed it. That's the power of a Wiki - a website that allows users to collaboratively create and edit web pages using a web browser. ScrewTurn is a free Wiki server that can be loaded onto a network so that many people can connect, view, post, edit and add to the collaboration efforts of the plant. A knowledge management system. Very cool. Once downloaded, the install can take two directions. The first is a client server setup that allows you to install the Wiki as a server, giving many remote machines the ability to log on. This install supports Active Directory. The other option is a desktop version that runs locally. This is the version I installed. In the desktop version, clients attach to the Wiki using a standard web browser. Once the system installs, you can log in as the "admin" using a default password, and begin setting up the Wiki page. As the admin, you are able to set up user names and passwords, and configure their abilities (page changes, editing capabilities, user security settings, etc.). Once a user has been set up, the fun begins. The Wiki is really about relaying information. The administrator controls some content, appearance, options, themes and plug-ins for the users, and there can be more than one admin. The main areas of concern are the ability to create users, pages for knowledge capture, user editing and search capabilities. A small word of caution, though: the admin privileges allow you to alter the complete Wiki, so some purposeful programming is required. Step one is to change the default password by editing the web.config file located in the main Wiki directory. Restart the Wiki engine, and log in as the admin. Clicking the Administration link on the sidebar opens the admin options. Learning about namespaces and categories is useful for grouping like items together. These would be machine names, processes or departments. Pages and content can be linked to these items. This is the most important step in the Wiki creation. Once the line items and connections have been made, the page content can be created, which can be started by the admin but maintained and added to by users. Users can edit an existing page, create a new one and/or start a discussion associated with a page. The connection is really between the page and a function or device on the plant floor. A page for definitions or functions can be created, and then linked in a page to give additional guidance with a procedure, or linked to an external file or image. The discussion feature is very cool - very similar to a newsgroup or user board for comments and conversations. As the admin, you have the option not to allow users to change the content of a given page, and only allow discussions. This is a helpful feature if the data on the page is critical for the process. Once the user creates the page, the admin person can lock it so that no further edits can be made. Historical edits are logged by the Wiki engine, so it is best to have individual logins rather than one global login. The management may be a pain, but worth it in the end. The user will request an account, and as the admin you allow it. Then the user is on his own. The system navigation is created by the page links, so it can get a bit unwieldy if there are many pages and links. This can lead to user fatigue in trying to get to what they want or need. Constant monitoring and adjustment may be required, but the ability to gather plant floor knowledge and data is priceless. It is worth the effort to be sure that the knowledge from the plant floor doesn't walk out the door when the grey hairs retire! Happy Wikiing! Jeremy Pollard has been in the industrial automation industry for more than 25 years. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator in the field. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Thursday, 22 July 2010
In the previous column, we talked about the terminal services (TS) methodology, Elusiva's Terminal Server Pro, and the concepts of terminal server services, RDP thin clients, and running applications in a TS environment. Running applications and desktops in a TS environment has many advantages as previously described. Should you be using a remote desktop client, then you would log into the system as a user, and the full desktop for that user is presented. You have access to the resources that the administrator gave to you. In any industrial environment, you may want to have local and remote applications. You may have over 50 users needing to use those applications, and you may need to have a 100 percent uptime production requirement. In this case, a normal TS environment may not be able to give you everything you need. Enter Terminal Server Enterprise. This software is similar to Citrix, Microsoft, VMware and the like, but it is a very intriguing alternative. It runs in XP for one, and it uses concurrent licensing for another. So even if you had 50 users set up on the server, but only 10 typically connect at any one time, you can buy a 10-user license! That's easy on the chequebook. It can load balance on multiple servers, and allow for administrator maintenance, upgrades, and servicing to provide 100 percent uptime so it is very scalable and very IT friendly. There is also an All-in-One setup that puts all of the features on a single XP machine except for load balancing since there is only one server. That's where I focused my attention. According to the manual, "small organizations can deploy the All-In-One configuration on a single Windows server, taking advantage of on-demand computing without a big investment in hardware". If you install an application on the server, you can publish that application using the TSE. Once published, the user can then select the application and run it from their location using various tools, including a web browser, or a downloadable client from Elusiva. What this allows the administrator to do is configure applications for certain users and, when they log in, they see only what they are supposed to see. Imagine being on a plant floor, and you log in as the "crusher" operator. Only those applications associated to you or to the operator would be made "public". Very cool. An administrator can log into the system as the "crusher" admin over the Internet using Elusiva-supplied certificates to view the process securely. There is a level of comfort knowing that you can deliver the needed applications and data without having to jump through too many hoops or spending an exorbitant amount of money. Depending on the needs of the user, a full desktop can be delivered as long as terminal services are also installed. Using the Web Portal in the TSE is a very useful tool. This means that you can publish applications to a host of users without having to install any software on those clients. This allows for very easy application deployment plant wide. While I only tested it with Internet Explorer, using Firefox and Chrome should not be any different. Out of scope for this review is the use of the TSE in a VDI (Virtual Desktop) environment such as VMware and Hyper-V. My take on VDI is that if you are using VMware, then staying with a VMware solution is probably best. The help file was/is non-existent, but when I talked to the company they were very helpful. One add-on to this product is an audit tool. This tool tracks users' activities when they are attached to the server, and to their published programs. The keystrokes that one follows are logged so that a historical trail is present and, should an issue occur, the admin can go back in time to see what happened. This would be great for the developers too so they can re-create the operators path to reproduce a problem. Privacy may be an issue, but this tool could be very useful in multi-operator environments. Most of us do not have a network administration degree. Using Elusiva's software on an XP platform can work really well, and it is somewhat easy to implement for anyone with admin experience. Running a clustered server environment with full load balancing, management tools, and server farm attributes is probably out of our scope. So employing a browser-based solution to application publishing is probably a good approach for us. The fact that you can have local and remote access to "stuff" is very attractive, and for smaller companies who may not have the resources of a Proctor and Gamble may choose to investigate and test Elusiva's TSE environment. It is very cool, and inexpensive. Jeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator in the field. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Wednesday, 21 July 2010
Energy management, non-renewable resources, peak oil, energy costs and just about "green" anything are popular buzzwords right now. Computers aren't immune to this environmental revolution - they consume piles of joules that cost money to use, and money to generate. You know "thin" is in - and "fat" is officially out - when Google gets on board. And that's just what the IT giant did when it re-designed its server farms to save energy - and ended up trimming $50 million annually from its budget. Terminal services (TS) were once the platform and domain of all IT departments. You had to run TS in a server environment because it was a managed environment. Thus the IT group was involved because it was a server. And we all know what happens when servers, IT, and control guys get in the same room - that's when the fights start! This is not the case with Elusiva TS software. It runs on XP. Yep, that's right, a normal desktop. We can have the same benefits as a true server environment under our own management, and save energy, money and time. A TS client could be anything, really. An old computer could run Remote Desktop protocol (RDP) to attach to the TS server, but that would be defeating some of the purpose of going thin. A thin client, typically, is a device that is based in firmware. It usually lacks spinning hard drives and features a small footprint, runs on Windows CE, and requires much less energy. I use thin clients from Esprit Technology, and their thin clients use 1.2 amps at 12 VDC max. A Dell server I have here uses over three amps at 120 VAC and a workstation is just under three amps. I'll let you do the math. There are two very distinct components for changing your approach to industrial computing - hardware and software. The hardware is easy. Get a computer running XP and a thin client running RDP, and you have the requirements to run a TS environment. The RDP software is free from Microsoft, and there is a demo on the Elusiva website that you can run for two weeks to try this out. The installation of the Elusiva server software is fairly painless. You have to have Internet access to register the licence even though it is free. It will not work otherwise. Also, be aware that if you upgrade to a full licence you will have to re-install the software, and re-register. You need to use GPEDIT.MSC to configure the TS environment on the Windows XP server. This is the real configuration exercise where you have to 'allow' a TS client to connect. Once that is done, any client can connect and compute in a TS session. You have to name the server, and then the system is ready to rock. The TS server is automatically active after a reboot. The RDP software can access the server by the name given or the IP address. The user that you log in as must be a registered Windows user on the TS server along with a password. It is exactly the same as creating a new user locally through the control panel. When you log in using RDP, you enter the user name and password, and the screen looks like a normal Windows screen. Be aware that the person who is running the Windows session locally is still active. There are still issues surrounding running applications in a TS environment, which will be covered in the second installment of this column (available in the June issue), where we will deal with the Enterprise product from Elusiva. Suffice it to say that, in any application, you can use a thin client and a TS environment. The applications that will benefit the most are SCADA. Depending on the platform, you can save energy, development and runtime costs, and of course hardware costs. So for 50 bucks a user, you can have a distributed system, with secure and almost "maintenance-free" clients on the plant floor. There is no performance penalty when using a TS environment and there is no limit to the number of users. Depending on the server hardware, applications, and connectivity, however, a load balancing system may be required. But that's for next month. Jeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator in the field. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Wednesday, 21 July 2010
My customers use a lot of Rockwell Automation products. As with most industrial sites, and processes, the equipment is older and uses less-than-recent software revisions. Microsoft and Intel have continued to provide us with development and maintenance platforms that are awesome for what we do, but as always, we have no way of going back. The compatibility issue is huge since we may be using software from the '90s. With Windows 7 on just about every desktop and laptop, if you thought you couldn't upgrade your hardware because of the software you use - you'd be wrong. Man, this thing is cool! I, too, was in the same boat regarding legacy software, and recently bought an Asus All-in-One PC. The only reason I did this is because of the VMware Player. VMware Player is a virtual environment that allows you to run any operating system on any host running anything. Downloading and loading the player from the company's site is painless. Start the application by selecting the software in the Start Menu. Now you are then entering Pandora - another world. I have installed the player on an XP host machine as well as a Windows 7 host. Its behaviour is not the same, but it's equal. The benefits of using a virtual environment may not be obvious to some. Imagine having a Windows 7 host machine and software that only runs on Windows 98.  As well, you have a machine you've been using for four years, which is XP, and some applications that you can't reinstall (for whatever reason). VMware Player allows you to install Windows 98, and all of the software you need and want, and converts your existing XP machine into a virtual computer you can run on the Windows 7 host as if you're really using your old XP machine. This works well - and is necessary since Rockwell's legacy software does not run on Windows 7. The initial player screen allows you create a new virtual machine. Use this option if you have a legal CD with any operating system. You can also use a backup image file of any computer you have backed up. Install the operating system of choice onto the virtual machine, and then the fun begins. All of the host hardware is available to you in the virtual machine. I did not test the player on a laptop with a PCMCIA slot, but I suspect it would work. This means you can install XP, install your legal copy of RSLogix 500 or Schneider Concept, and run either using the host's serial ports or Ethernet. That I have tested, and it works flawlessly. The virtual machine has all of the options you would expect with the ability to change the hard-drive size, amount of memory allocate and the network IP address. You can also take control of the USB ports and connected devices on demand. Network disk sharing is a breeze. The conversion tool only works with version 2.5 of the player, so I would download both. Convert the existing hardware using an external USB drive, or the network by using version 2.5, then open it with version 3.0, and all is good. There is a really cool option called Unity, which takes the virtual machine and makes it look like a window in the host operating system. It works very well on Windows 7 - but on XP? Not so much. Imagine the possibilities. You can have four separate computers running on one where they look like a window, and you can be running different legacy software on each. It's great for testing, too. You could even install DOS 5.0, if you wanted. I created multiple virtual machines in fewer than two hours, and now I can run any software regardless of vintage. I review software, and installing this software on a "test" machine didn't disrupt my working development machine. Another very cool consequence of virtualization is that I can take an image of my customer's machines and access the environment virtually so I can test software as if I was in their network. While this may be a security and/or privacy issue for some, the intent is clear -productivity is enhanced big time. And with the big hard drives and big memory possibilities with 64-bit systems, there are no limitations to what you can accomplish. The older versions of virtualization software have had their issues, but VMware Player is solid and very functional. You have to try it. Go ye to Pandora! Jeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator in the field. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Monday, 15 September 2008
While this book is primarily written for academia and for course study, it can very well suit some control engineers and some process guys to allow them to learn more about the IEC 61499 standard. So, for those who have no idea what IEC 61499 is or how it can help you, this book can answer most of your questions. This IEC standard, as author Valeriy Vyatkin states in the introduction to IEC 61499 Function Blocks for Embedded and Distributed Control Systems Design, was in development for more than 10 years. It was developed as an answer to the question, “How do I protect my intellectual property (IP) in an open automation software solution?” The answer? IEC 61499. The IP is kept beneath a protected function block and the only items that are exposed are the inputs and outputs, along with some data — if the developer allows it. The author begins the journey with a quick start chapter and a follow-up chapter which explain the “where we came from” scenarios, which is very cool since many younger readers may not realize the history. Being a teaching book, Vyatkin may rely on the guidance of the instructor a bit too much, since he is talking about loading files into software in the quick start chapter without introducing the software itself. There is a footnote at the end of the chapter, but it IS a quick start, one might argue! He uses a flasher application to describe and to demonstrate the function block approach. The software he uses is a free development tool developed by Dr. James Christensen, a former Rockwell engineer and guru of IEC 61499. You can find it at www.holobloc.com. The history lesson is very valuable, since the premise of IEC 61499 is a distributed control system. The comparisons he makes are very valid and succinct. There are review questions at the end of each chapter, but the answers don’t form part of the book. Perhaps they do in the instructor’s guide? Vyatkin does a really good job describing a typical automation sequence and how a normal PLC control system would handle the process, and then breaks it down into a next generation control system requirements. He introduces the concept of portability (of function blocks). This should pique your interest! The ability of having an agile control system, with the ability to rescue certain blocks in a different application(s), is appealing and is a failure of IEC-61131, the programming standard for some typical control systems, which Vyatkin notes in the book. Although it may sound like a sales pitch, he makes a good case for the application of the standard in future control systems in chapter four. The real meat and potatoes of the standard are introduced in the following chapters, including the software development platform that Christensen developed. When Vyatkin diverts into system design and methodologies used, the academia comes out in his writing. While I am sure he didn’t intend it, his vision and opinion on the future of our industry is refreshing. Have you ever heard of Model-View-Controller (MVC)? I hadn’t. After a quick Google search, I found a wiki page that explained the concept. The terminology used with MVC in the real world says nothing of PLC, automation or control. Vyatkin’s professorial background is a big help here. He takes a rather aged architectural pattern and applies it to something that only a researcher could. He applies it to the object-oriented exposure of IEC 61499 and flows it into design framework. He talks about encapsulation of functions to ‘pretty up’ the function block diagram. Academia at its best, folks! This book is more than the technical jargon and application of the function block platform. As informative as it is from a technical perspective, it also provides readers with an historical perspective that they wouldn’t find elsewhere. A good mix of academia, practicality, opinion and history provides for a quick read. But although it is a good reference book that can provide you with a good introduction into the world of distributed control, it falls a bit short of being an actual development guide. You may have to go to holobloc.com or isagraf.com for more detailed application and design implementation information. Speaking of which, ISaGRAF is the only product that commercially supports the IEC 61499 standard. That website can provide you with additional information on the implementations of the standard. Both websites have downloadable software for you to play with. It is a worthwhile proposition after you have read this book. Some knowledge of IEC-61131 would be a benefit! Jeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and an educator in the field. Jeremy can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Ten Years After: a rock group that performed at Woodstock, with Alvin Lee as an up-and-coming guitar player. Who’d have known, come 2009, that anyone would remember 40 years into the past? Well, we do. So 10 years from now, where will we be and what technology will we be using in software? One thing for sure is that you will not be in the job you are in today. The skills required to remain in the industry will be wide ranging, and you will probably need some level of certification. I have pontificated before on certain technologies only to be shot down by a lack of enthusiasm of the masses to either accept technology or implement something different (because their distributor told them they should). That is going to change. Software is a global phenomenon. Solutions come from all over the globe, and some solutions are good — and some are better. There are various stages of acknowledgement in our industry. By that I mean that once we determine a product is right for us, we tend to grab hold and never let go. Once we choose, that’s it! Ten years from now, I don’t see this changing, except for the inevitable roadblocks that our captive vendors will have put up for us that we will have to work around unless we don’t care. Google is going to have its way with us. All software will be “cloud based” in the commercial space, which will lead to “sort-of” cloud-based computing in our world. Machine control and local designs won’t change much, I don’t think, but the connection to the enterprise will be very different. I feel that devices will have built-in widgets that will make creating software applications like HMIs a no-brainer. The alarms, set points and object-based data for any device will come from the device itself, and probably wirelessly. Control may still be hardwired, but the monitoring can very easily become wireless. Control software creation will be done at a higher level than what it is now; by how much will depend on our captive vendors and our inability to get outside the box. There will be many platforms that will allow us to use software to create software — but with methods and objects, not with individual placement of instructions. Cell service will be pervasive, making access to all systems mobile. Security will be an issue, and we can hope that three-factor authentication systems will be in place to allow us to operate freely. I suspect the incoming crop of nerds will be better prepared, and your boss will probably be younger than you. (Sorry for the generalization.) The “we have done it this way for x years” mentality will be so strained that companies will have no choice but to adjust. Software and process simulation should be pervasive as well. We will be dealing with off-site projects that only allow us to generate solutions remotely. Virtualization of processes won’t happen, but where these applications run will be in the virtual space in the enterprise. Local programming software won’t be required since your laptop will be connected to the control devices using a web browser and the programming editor and documentation will be resident on the device itself. Now that will be cool! Algorithmic control program creation is another potential tool, where a process control model is created using a scientific algorithm, not coded instructions. Think of it as a cross compiler. From a software perspective, control and automation people are not software architects, and that has been shown time and time again. I’m sorry but most electricians cannot design, architect and implement a control strategy. Engineers have a tough enough time, and most are not successful. So the tedium of ‘build from scratch’ will be removed. Check out IEC-61499 which documents a device level standard and creates a control paradigm without the need of master computer or PLC. Neat, eh? Alarms and diagnostics will be programmed as such and will be pushed to the users. HMI screens on the factory floor won’t be a pervasive as they are now. Mobile access using a device such as an iPhone (but a new and improved model) will enable you to interact with the enterprise server directly. While all of this is very cool, and will arise from the competitiveness that drives most technological advancements, we need the innovation to implement it. It will come. Windows 95 started a whole new wave of technology, and look how far we have come. We can now download a 3-D part model from AutoCAD to a milling machine and the product is done. We couldn’t do that 10 years ago. New technologies will be driven by new software. You must be ready and prepared. The Rockwell PLC-5 has been around since 1983-ish. That’s 25 years. This paradigm will be a thing of the past. Life cycles are no longer 25 years — more like eight to 10. You have to be nimble, Jack! So keep training and learning. You have it, and that will never change! Jeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator in the field. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Monday, 26 October 2009
Cyber security and rogue plant floor applications are made for each other. One tries to get to places while the other tries to stop them. Sounds like parents with teenagers. But I assure you it is more than that. A proxy server is a software application that resides on a computer in your network. Previous proxy “servers” — a word that can be misinterpreted because it can mean hardware or software — needed to be run on a server-based operating system platform. In this case, the FreeProxy software can run on any Windows-based operating system, although it hasn’t been tested on Vista — but then, I ask, why would you want to? A proxy service provides a method of connecting a computer or computers on a network to that network, but with supervision. Its main use is to connect networked computers to the Internet so that each computer is not directly connected to the Internet as such. While there is typically a router involved on both the Internet side and network side, the browser and e-mail clients access the resources directly. This can cause all sorts of issues with security and access control. In this column, I will focus on concerns surrounding access control. Typically when a computer is on a network, it has access to shared resources, access to “ports” and, therefore, access to digital assets. Ports are used to allocate connectivity to resources using the TCP/IP communication protocol using a function called Sockets, or Winsock. This function allows two computers to communicate in a similar fashion to a phone operator in the “early days.” So why could this be important? It has long been an argument that the control network should be different than the “office” network. FreeProxy can run on any operating system, which means that any computer on the network can host this server software. Having said that, you would need to pick a computer on which to install the software. For me, the installation went very smoothly, and I must say the help file is very complete. The software has not been updated since 2006, and version 4.0 is still in beta, so its future support may be in question, but it is still a great product for use right now. Configuring the server is easy, if you understand the network protocols of TCP/IP, etc. The purpose of the software is to serve up Web pages and to allow access to resources such as HMI or programming nodes. The software also allows the administrator to assign users, groups and access options. When you create a user, who would log into the server (setup of the client is done by the administrator as well), a policy is retrieved indicating to the user what assets are available to them. If you have multiple users for the same use, then you can apply the restrictions to a group. Setting this up is pretty easy. You shouldn’t have multiple machines logging in with the same user name and password. This may be a move away from your current norm, but it allows for the restrictions to be better defined. For example, you can set up the software to allow Joe_1 to access the PLC on the calendar (a paper-machine section) but not allow access to the PLC on the winder. Betty, however, could access the complete paper machine. Rockwell Ethernet PLCs that reside on a network should use TCP Port 2222 for packet initiation from a client application, such as RSLogix programming software, and TCP Port 2223 for reply. You can set the server up to block the IP address of the PLC, or simply the port for the user or the group. This means that any software that would use that port (such as RSLogix5) would be blocked if that user tried to access a Rockwell PLC. This would also work for Modbus devices assuming that the default ports were used. If the ports were changed then the port number would need to be identified. This resource definition takes place within the proxy server so that only authorized people can access the assets the administrator deems proper. The server can be set up as a Web server, as well, so if you have applications or applets that can serve up HTTP information, this server can manage that domain for you. Other options can include FTP file transfer, Web-based e-mail and instant messaging. This proxy is the network management manager you’ve been looking for — and the cost is perfect. While this review acted more as a primer for proxy software than as a full-blown review the software itself, FreeProxy is a program that can make our lives much easier by being a network traffic cop and can be easily implemented by control guys like us. Jeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and educator in the field. You can reach Jeremy at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Monday, 06 October 2008
I have to admit that when I started this review of IntraVUE network monitoring and configuration software, I was a bit skeptical about a product claimed it could map out your plant floor network and find issues based on a network tool called "ping." I also wondered where the value was in a product that can cost you upwards of $4,000 to be able to see pretty boxes. Now that I have seen the software, I know! IntraVUE is a below-the-surface network tool that can help any company that has a layered network see and hear their devices, which can then allow the support team to better respond to issues that affect most networks. The install went well. Since the software is hardware runtime protected, there is a bit of sequence to go through to get the USB driver loaded for the runtime key. Once that is over, you are presented with a web page with various links to help systems, videos and overviews. I would strongly recommend going through the videos – they are helpful and informative. The audio playback level isn’t consistent, though, so have your hand on the mute button in case it’s too loud! The software is Java-based and uses a web browser interface and a SQL server to log all of its data. Being database driven, there are reports and historical information that can provide you with a measuring stick. This data can be exported for future offline investigation. The first "thing to do" is to log in as the administrator and create your first network. The canvas is totally object-oriented, so mouse clicking is object-dependant. The network would include the IP address range of the devices connected to the computer that IntraVUE resides on, and all other subnets that are present for devices such as switches and routers. IntraVUE will then go out and find all the devices that are connected to the physical or virtual network and display a box on the screen with a connecting line. The colour of the box and the colour of the outline of this box are important features to be familiar with. The software makes good use of SNMP, a network management protocol that most devices support. There is a caveat here, however. SNMP serves up information about the device. Should that device be a managed switch, then the switch will report IP addresses, as well as port numbers to an SNMP request. Typically this is done using a public SNMP request. Should the IT group change or lock down the SNMP information, a part of the value of IntraVUE is crippled. Without SNMP enabled and accessible, object features and data accessibility are limited. This is where you have to work with your IT department to gain access to the SNMP data from the switches and routers. Once the software has discovered the devices, IntraVUE tells you which devices are SNMP active and those that are not. It is important to have a network map, so that you can manually insert switches, routers and hubs that are not discovered automatically. To add a device, right-click on the canvas and select "add device." Once configured, move the active device(s) to this new device. This diagram now represents the true network. I am impressed with the presentation options and how the graphics are managed on-screen. The strength of IntraVUE lies in its database and the data it tracks. Using SNMP, bandwidth can be tracked. IntraVUE also pings each device a few time a minute and tracks the response times. Ping failures and response times are trended and if there is an issue, it will change the colour of the connecting line. Information about issues and problems can be e-mailed or viewed in the event log, which provides a wealth of information. This is where I found value. An outside contractor came into the plant and had a fixed IP laptop. I had extended the DHCP range, since I manage this network. Since the outsider has used this IP before, no worries right? The duplicate IP box was added to the network diagram, and I immediately knew that a new device had connected to the network. While it didn’t cause a big issue network-wise, it could have if the device was a PLC that can’t tell you that a duplicate IP is present. The display of devices can vary from IP address to thumbnails to icons. Links to outside documents and web pages can be configured for each device, which can provide valuable information to the viewer, who may not have any network knowledge at all. The threshold graphs are very useful in determining who may be causing a problem. All in all, it is priced competitively to other network monitoring tools, with the added benefits of supporting industrial networks and subsequent connected devices, such as PLCs. Since the company was started by an industry veteran, more plant floor tools will be forthcoming. Go to the website and have a peek. If you have a network, you need this tool! Jeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and an educator in the field. Jeremy can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . PRODUCT SPECS: Name: IntraVUE Version: 2.0.3 Vendor: Network Vision (http://www.intravue.net/) Application: Industrial network monitoring and support Price: $495.00 and up
Friday, 14 October 2005
We have a tough job every day developing applications for manufacturing automation projects, control code, HMI interfaces and communication strategies. Additionally, we have to maintain those systems and processes as we accept more responsibility for the success of that process. Then, as with all day-to-day operations, something goes south somewhere. It really doesn't matter if you are a project supervisor, a maintenance manager, control engineer, or a startup technician. And it also doesn't matter if you are employed by a user company or an OEM. This advice is for you. First, I have been using this technology for six months, and it has saved my bacon more than once. It is not exactly a product; it is a solution that can save us time, aggravation and money. It might even save a marriage. The product is similar to PC Anywhere, or GoToMyPC, but it isn't. It is Mobi Solution. "The sandbox is 'remoting' – not remote access but remoting," says the VP of marketing of Route1, Inc Josef Zankowicz. This is remote control with a big twist. Mobi stands for 'Mobile Intelligence'. The network is called MobiNET and the remote device is called MobiBook PRO. The host device is any Windows-based computer or server. The system network is the Internet so access is worldwide. Imagine being in an airport and one of your customers calls with a problem. You flip open your MobiBook PRO, direct connect to your home or office-based PC and you are (metaphorically) teleported to your comfy chair. Your customer's data is live in front of you. And it took less than a minute to initiate, connect and to 'be live'. It's true–I've done it. This connection can be made using any communication method available such as WiFi/WiMax, cell network, wired or dialup. The efficiency of MobiNET's communications allows for reasonable response over the slowest networks. Delays can cause some impatience, but based on the speed at which you are responding to a problem, you will be able to react sooner than you would be able to get to a landline or network. The architecture consists of three components: MobiHost (software), MobiNET, MobiRemote (software). The MobiNET part of the equation consists of the MAG (MobiNET Acceleration Gateway), the MIX (MobiNET Internet Exchange), and the CA (Certificate Authority). Together, these three 'servers' initiate, authenticate and manage the connection between the MobiRemote and the MobiHost. Software installation is harmless. The host software is installed on any Windows 98/2000/XP computer with a minimum configuration from a Route1 supplied CD. The install requires Microsoft .NET framework and installs it if it is not present. For me, installation went very smoothly. For you, it would probably work best if you have the remote device physically by the host since an authorization process is needed. You can authorize remotely as well, but you would need a helper at the other end. The host installation requires some general information, which will be used to register the host with the authentication servers. My Login ID was supplied by Route1 after the host installation. Users select their own password, which will be important if you want to install the host software on more than one computer. You can have up to five hosts. On the MobiRemote Control Panel, you register the host by entering in the activation code that you were sent by Route1. You need the same password that you entered in the host installation. Then the cycle is complete. The remote and host are now linked, authenticated, and ready for use. The MobiBook PRO (which has the MobiRemote software pre-installed) is only one remote device that can be used. More are being validated by the company. As well, technology is being developed that will allow you to use the same secure authentication network with your own computer or laptop. I have even seen it working on a Motorola flip phone/PDA! So now what? The host computer is now with you at all hours of the day, and anywhere in the world where an Internet connection is available. It is secure, and because the remote and hosts are authenticated together, no one else can connect to your host, not even Route1. Now all of your functionality that resides on your host computer is available to you remotely. The kicker is that all the data is on your host and stays there. No synchronizing required. The benefits are many, but the most important one for me is the ability to access many of my client's sites either via my own desktop or directly to their own servers because I made them a host. No knowledge of firewalls, VPN's or network setup is required. The uses are endless. Most machines have an HMI computer on them, but not portable. By installing MobiHost onto this computer and providing a wireless router to the machine, you can use MobiRemote to monitor the operation of the machine from anywhere around the process. Take the process with you – it's great for startups. Or, you could access your local computer in your office while you are in a taxi in a different province, and connect to the infrastructure you have spent the last 10 years building. The results are incredible. None of my customer's software leaves their building. I can gain access from anywhere, and it is totally secure. For the tech-savvy, this should be a no-brainer. You have to check out Route1.com.You can reach Jeremy Pollard at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Tuesday, 01 March 2005
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.Jeremy Pollard can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .PRODUCT SPECS:Name: Cyberlogic OPC Server SuiteVersion: 5.0Vendor: Cyberlogic Software, Inc.Application: Data acquisition and controlPrice: US$750
Wednesday, 17 January 2007
It's amazing the things you find while surfing around an e-mail list. I stumbled upon FactoryPMI, a database-driven web-based SCADA/HMI system designed for any industry. Developed by Inductive Automation, these guys may not spend a lot of dough on marketing, but their product speaks for itself.FactoryPMI only requires a database source that has data in it, and a resident database manager, such as MySQL. For live data, there needs to be a connection to a data source, such as a PLC. This is accomplished using an OPC server to extract the data. Factory SQL installation includes the Kepware OPC server. I also successfully used RSLinx OPC Remote Server.I configured the Kepware OPC server to talk with my lab's Rockwell Automation PLC-5. Then I opened up the main gateway program and it informed me that I needed Java, the universal language from Sun Microsystems. FactoryPMI provided the link and instructions for me. All fairly painless.You need a database server such as MySQL, which was already installed and configured on my system. Most packaged HMI systems provide all of the parts for you, so this is a new approach.So we have a PLC connected to an OPC server, which is managed by FactorySQL, the second part of the FactoryPMI suite. FactorySQL is the glue for the system since it provides connectivity between the graphics, the database and the OPC server, and thus the PLC real-time data. Live data can be viewed using an SQL tool, such as DBManager from DBTools Software.But what we really want to do is view our application (which hasn't been built yet) using an Internet browser such as Firefox or Internet Explorer. The marketing information states that there are no runtime royalties and no plug-ins. We'll see.Enter the FactoryPMI web server. This software allows you to create a screen that is pure web and uses Java to create and distribute the screens to any client that logs into the server.There are two components to the FactoryPMI web server - the designer and the gateway. The gateway has to be configured to connect to the database that you previously created with FactorySQL.In order to display any items of interest and/or graphics, the designer has to be evoked. Be aware that all of the running code is Java and html. And because it is web-based, all of the normal web attributes are allowed, so you can be as creative as you want. Adding components is a snap.The selection of available graphics that have the ability to display data is perhaps a bit slim, but should suffice for most basic applications. There are built-in static graphics of some common devices. A typical unanimated graphic can have a dynamic control placed on it, which is updated from the database. When you think of a standard HMI, you might think about objects and functions such as data display, colour changes, operator interaction and charts. FactoryPMI has it all as well. If you are a Visual Basic programmer, then most of the nomenclature will be familiar to you, such as the properties and methods.Everything that you do in the designer is bound to the database. If you have a weigh scale, for instance, and you want to display the value on the form, then you have to bind the database point to the object. The data for the database point will come from the OPC server and FactorySQL.If you want to change an alarm set point for the weight, then this data point would be written by the form's object, such as a data input box and a command button.There is a built-in scripting language, as well as Java support. If you can't get the system to do what you want using standard functions, you can write your own. Each object also has dynamically applied properties that you design.The method of completion is very different for anyone who has used Wonderware's Intouch, RSView or Intellution. The approach that FactoryPMI employs takes more pre-thinking and database design than the aforementioned HMIs.Once the form is created and the objects bound to the database, it is time to view the result. You can run a preview in the designer, or log into the gateway locally or from a client machine. I used the IP address of my gateway and the port number (10.11.0.19:8080) to access the gateway, and voila, free runtimes.The interface is very slick and functional. The help system is more than adequate, and the web support is very good. It is a new way of designing due to the database-driven nature of the product, and it will force you to be a better developer because of it.PRODUCT SPECS:Name: FactoryPMI Version: 1.8.6Vendor: Inductive AutomationApplication: SCADA/HMIPrice: $1,850 to $3,900 USJeremy Pollard is a 25-year veteran of the industrial automation industry. He has worked as a systems integrator, consultant and an educator in the field. Jeremy can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
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