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Visualising future trends

12 June 2012

Russ Agrusa, founder and CEO of Iconics, a developer of real-time visualisation and automation software, talks about the innovations that he feels will have the biggest impact in the process automation industry in the coming years.

It is always important to look to the future in any industry and to follow the latest trends. As a supplier to industry, companies such as Iconics need to ensure that they are aligned with popular thinking and that they continue to build products that people want to use.

It is important to remember that the majority of IT advances will affect the industrial sector. Where IT leads, industry will eventually follow. Iconics is a Microsoft Gold Partner and works very closely with the company, which gives us an early insight into IT developments resulting from Microsoft’s $10 billion IT research budget.

Good, old-fashioned intuition also has a big role to play. Sometimes it is necessary to take a gamble on a technology. Iconics, for example, having written around 350 device drivers for PLCs between 1986 and 1995, was keen to find a better way forward, as during this period, nearly 90% of our staff were employed to write device drivers. Microsoft was having the same problem which resulted in it developing OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) – the plug-and play-architecture which forms the basis for allowing products to automatically recognise the USB key of a device.

Betting on OPC
Iconics bet heavily on the industrial version of OLE – OPC (OLE for Process Control). We got involved at the earliest stages and helped write some specifications. I have been on the OPC board of directors since 2002 so was able to help drive the next generation of the standard, OPC UA (Unified Architecture) which provides a cohesive and reliable cross-platform framework for access to real-time and historical data and events. Today, Iconics is also working more with BACnet, the building automation data communication protocol, and we are doing more work on the Web too.

One of the most exciting technologies that we are currently working on is the concept of ‘Running on any glass’. We are seeing a greater adoption of iPad, Android, Blackberry and other smart phones and tablets. I know of one of the major automotive companies, for example, that has issued its maintenance staff and factory workers with iPads because it recognises the potential for these relatively cheap consumer items to help it to reduce instances of expensive downtime by ensuring it has access to real-time production information right across the plant.

Cross platform visualisation
As a visualisation company we were hugely interested to know how we could get the same visualisation to run on all of the different platforms available. We were lucky enough be selected for the EU funded Plant Cockpit project (www.plantcockpit.eu). Our mission was to find a way to deliver both enterprise and real-time factory data to any glass on any device that supports HTML5.

We have been working on the project for several years and now have some great proof of concepts that will be integrated into the next version of Genesis HMI/SCADA, which is due to be launched at SPS/IPC/DRIVES 2012.

I believe that HTML5 will bring about a quantum shift in visualisation technology, bringing with it the ability to make all devices ubiquitous and connectable. I would compare it to what happened with Token Ring and Ethernet some years ago.

Another area of debate today is the Cloud. It has, of course, been around for some time. The question we need to consider is how the Cloud can be utilised in a very secure way for manufacturing. We need to look at what kind of applications would translate best into a cloud-based solution. Iconics is working on several prototypes. One is building automation and energy monitoring. Benefits here are that you do not need IT staff, you don't need to scale out your data centres. We are currently working to move our high-performance 64 bit system onto the cloud which, through OPC, BACnet and secure communications, will make it possible to push information up to the cloud, generate reports and generate visualisation – which will be able to run on any device.

I also see the Cloud as having some other selective industrial applications. Maybe oil and gas companies, who own a lot of unmanned assets which could be remotely performance monitored to cost-effectively optimise productivity.


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