17 April 2008

Embedded intelligence, diagnostics

By Jim Pinto

Consider the information we need about the products we use: how to use (buttons, features, capabilities), history, location, part number, where purchased, when installed, by who, key characteristics, specifications, diagnostics, availability of spares, replacement alternatives, and repair instructions.

In the past, this information would reside in printed documentation or with trained experts. In the future, the appliance itself will contain all of the required "knowledge," embedded within it and always accessible. You will not have to register for the warranty-the product will know when you first turned it on.

A significant and useful intelligence characteristic is diagnostics, not only after failure has occurred, but also predictive (before failure) and advisory (providing maintenance instructions). It is not sufficient to know a product has failed; if the failure occurs at an inconvenient time, that may result in significant inconvenience and hardship. It is more important to signal that failure will probably occur "soon," allowing the user time to arrange alternatives.

Just as PCs have diagnostics for memory (RAM, disk-space, and processing load) and provide warnings when these resources are short, most products will have predictive and preventive diagnostics. For example, if a button appears to be "sticky," the appliance can perhaps continue to operate with some precautions. On the other hand, a different kind of "stickiness" might demand immediate remedial action. This is like sensing the "rattling" in an automobile engine, to correct the problem before a catastrophic problem occurs. That kind of "intelligence" will reside in the product, with "advice" coming from the hierarchy of the network to which it connects.

That kind of "intelligence" will reside not only in central computers and PLCs, but also in an increasing number of instruments, controllers, actuators, and displays. This type of "intelligent appliance" philosophy will become part of virtually every product throughout the industrial controls environment.

An important area of system diagnostics (as contrasted with product diagnostics) is simulation of "massive" events-example power-turbine or nuclear reactor failure modes and calculation of response mechanisms. This kind of failure cannot be diagnosed easily through calculation in a large central computer; rather diagnosis methods involved failure simulation and "pattern recognition" through the responses of several thousand intelligent I/O points in a complex adaptive system.

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Behind the byline

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and founder of Action Instruments. You can e-mail him at jim@jimpinto.com or view his writings at www.JimPinto.com. Read the Table of Contents of his book, Pinto's Points, at www.jimpinto.com/writings/points.html.