02 March 2001
Next-generation Web tools for control
by Bob Felton
Match Dell's e-feat, or face the music.
Though contributors to ISA's online discussion groups differ endlessly about the shape of the future, neither instrument manufacturers nor Uncle Sam appear to have any doubts: They're putting their money on PCs, open standards, and the Internet. Like Internet newbies that think the World Wide Web is the Internet and haven't a clue what gopher, archie, and telnet might be, it seems likely that a future generation of plant engineers will wonder what their predecessors used to do with that clipboard and stubby pencil in the bottom drawer.
A recent white paper from Rockwell puts the point succinctly: "The e-manufacturing term is much like the phrase, 'e-business.' One day, the 'e' will be so common it's no longer needed. It will be manufacturing as usual." Rockwell's prediction rests on this observation: "The customer really does ruleand with an iron hand controlling a mouse. The current consumer mind-set is one of control, and it's enabled by the power of the Internet as a buying tool and information source: 'I can order something the way I want: via the Internet, in a store, or some other way. I can request my own features for that product, and I expect delivery when I need it. If not, then I'll go somewhere else.' "
There's nothing remarkable about the observation that successful businesses satisfy their customers, but Rockwell's analysts up the ante: "To be e-business ready, a company's manufacturing enterprise must be able to build to order and maintain nonstop operations." In short, they've seen the future . . . and Michael Dell is already there; visitors to his company's Web site can specify the exact system options they want, pay electronically, and confidently tell the boss what day they'll need to be at home to greet the delivery truck.
Other manufacturers are making haste to catch up. Last year, several automakers joined forces to launch Covisint, an online marketplace that aims to electronically link suppliers and vendors so tightly that when consumers order a car online, a seat manufacturer knows automatically which day he needs to deliver which size and style seat to the manufacturer's receiving dock in order for the customer to pick it up at the dealer on the promised delivery date. Renault has announced an initiative that aims, by 2002, to put made-to-order automobiles in clients' hands within 15 days following receipt of an order. Pants maker Levi's announced in November a program that allows consumers to order custom cut and sewn jeans over the Internet.
Some industries aren't quite so nimble, though. Dennis Brandl of Phoenix-based Sequencia Corp., a software developer, said, "The problem in the process industry is that the technology transfer time is so long." He added, "The Internet increases collaboration" but said he anticipates that industries such as chemicals will lag behind consumer-driven companies such as clothing makers.
The Framework Project
Though the growth of the Internetitself a suite of communications protocols, essentiallyhas fostered widespread connectivity, the e-means are hardly in place for dozens or hundreds of diverse enterprises in far-flung locations to cooperate to produce an automobile. All the instrument manufacturers are ready with software packages that gather data from the plant floor and archive it for use by other software applications, and many have packages that permit users to toggle switches using a Web browser, personal digital assistant, or Internet-enabled telephone. Because of the fear that some kid might hack his way into the system and start flipping switches, though, remote control of plant operations via the Internet just now looks like an idea whose time hasn't quite gotten here. Web-based protocols for control via intranets are advancing rapidly, though.
The U.S. government, for example, has set up the Framework Project under the auspices of the National Advanced Manufacturing Testbed (NAMT), a division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In its mission overview statement, the project noted, "Now manufacturers are trying to replace their in-house software systems with standards-based, off-the-shelf products. They want to reduce their outlay of capital and human resources on systems development, integration, and maintenance in order to focus on core manufacturing competencies and to improve operational flexibility. Industry requires the capability to rapidly integrate applications, improve interoperability, defer obsolescence, increase system stability, and integrate widely distributed manufacturing operations.
Bob Felton is Technical Editor for InTech magazine.