To Each His Own: Creating Custom Dashboards for Operators and Analysts

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It’s always very annoying when I try to perform what seems like it would be fairly routine maintenance on a home appliance or worse – my car – only to find out that this seemingly simple thing I would like to do is actually quite difficult with the tools at my disposal. A little bit of research usually reveals that it actually is quite simple; I just have to buy this proprietary tool from the manufacturer for what seems like a ridiculous price, and then I can proceed.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why the manufacturer doesn’t want to make it easy for end users to service their product. They want you to buy a new one, or at the very least buy this overpriced tool from them so they can scrape every morsel of profit afforded by their built-in obsolescence.

It really makes me appreciate the simplicity and widespread application of some of our more traditional tools. Take a hammer, for instance. If you need to drive a nail into wood, it doesn’t matter if it’s a big nail, a little nail, a long nail, or a short nail. It doesn’t matter who manufactured it or when. All that matters is that it’s a nail. Just get a hammer; you’ll be fine.

This got me thinking. What if we had a hammer for every type of nail available? What if each hammer was perfectly sized, shaped, weighted and balanced for each particular nail? And what if that perfect hammer was always available to you every time you needed it. This isn’t realistic, obviously, but it reminds me of some of the things I hear from our customers.

One of the great benefits cited by our end users is the ability to create custom dashboards for the different work responsibilities in their organizations. The same system is used to create maintenance dashboards for technicians, control panels for operators, system overviews for managers, reports for analysts, and even special dashboards for contractors and vendors. By providing every member of the team with a real-time view of exactly the information they need to do their jobs and nothing more, each person is empowered to do their jobs with the utmost efficiency – improving the speed and accuracy of decision-making as well as increasing the capacity for planning.

In the past, so much of our data visualization was tied to the device from which the data was drawn. If you wanted to know something about a particular machine, you had to look at the same picture as everyone else, regardless of what you needed to see.

Some modern software platforms like B-Scada’s Status products eliminate this need to tie visualizations to the device from which the data is drawn. It is now possible to visualize data from multiple devices at multiple locations through the same interface. This allows for a new concept in user interface design: rather than displaying all available information about this particular thing, you can now display all information relevant to a particular task or set of tasks.

It’s not quite “a hammer for every nail”; it’s more like a complete tool set tailored to every job, containing exactly the tools you need and nothing more. It’s really been a transformative development for many organizations.

B-Scada recently released a case study detailing how one prominent North American electric utility used Status to create a system of customized views for their operators, managers, and analysts, providing specific insights into the real-time status of their generation resources:

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3 Reasons You Should Consider Giving Your Process Operators Mobile Devices

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That’s right. It’s time to own up to the fact that the majority of us are using phones and tablets to do business everyday. We buy, sell, trade, learn, teach, and all manner of horrible and wonderful things that we have always done (no, not everyone does horrible things, but don’t act like the things you do are always so wonderful either) all with the aid of portable devices that allow us to move freely about our lives without being tethered to a desk chair.

Why, then, is it so difficult for some people to recognize that our industrial process operators and technicians – who are so often stuck behind a stationary HMI or calling from the field to speak with someone who is – would be far better equipped to do their jobs if only they were afforded the same conveniences they afford themselves in their lives outside of work.

I know there are concerns about security – about opening some digital wormhole through which all sorts of nefarious activity could be invited. There are concerns about ill-intentioned deviants having potential access to sensitive process data – which is not only proprietary, but often essential to our infrastrucure – as well there should be. But it’s not like these potential problems didn’t exist before mobile devices, and while some concerns are certainly valid, mobile devices provide a number of key benefits and opportunities that cannot be ignored:

 

  • For Remote Management of Disparate Assets
    This one seems pretty obvious, but imagine the amount of time that could be saved by not having to manually inspect field equipment or call back to the control station every time there is a simple question.
  • For Constant Access to a Portable Media Viewer
    How can you ensure that operators and techs always have access to the latest work masters, training videos, etc.? Upload or edit a document and make your changes instantly available to all relevant perties – regradless of where they are or what they’re doing.
  • For Instant access to Forms and Form Data
    Create Purchase Orders or close Work Requests from anywhere. Assign new owners or upload a picture you just snapped and attach it to a Job. The possibilities are nearly unlimited.

 

Sure, there are only three benfits listed here, but without much thought I’m sure you could think of a few more. Let me know in the comments below.

And for some additional food for for thought, check out this white paper on “The Benefits of Mobile HMIs” and tell me I’m not absolutely right about this:

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Information Modeling as a Tool for Collaboration

In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, let’s take a moment to examine one of the greatest and most appreciable qualities of a healthy organization: collaboration. In a world so full of information, where we are all so busy and so pressed for time, it seems collaboration has become something done more out of necessity than out of a desire for quality and efficiency.

Some of this reality may be due to the fact that there simply are no good tools for collaboration in the modern workplace. Sure, we have email and teleconferencing, web meetings and text messages – but for all of our technology, our endless need to compartmentalize and segment our business processes has left us no closer to a model of organic collaboration than we were in the past.

With relevant information stored in separate silos, decision-makers are still forced to rely on reports and statistics compiled from historical data and interpreted to support a specific agenda. There has really been no truly organic means analyzing real-time data alongside the historical data. Likewise, the available tools for integrating data from separate systems are limited in terms of their ability to create a real-time context and to display the appropriate data to decision-makers at the speed with which decisions must often be made.

While these tools may be useful for looking back and analyzing what has happened, it is another matter altogether when trying to look forward to make plans or predict outcomes.

Information Modeling

One of the ways this challenge can be overcome is by using an information model to organize and structure your organization’s data in a way that provides context and clarity in real time. Information modeling allows assets to be associated with all relevant information – regardless of where that information may reside.

For instance, a motor on your plant floor can have live data related to its RPM, temperature, throughput, or other process data – as well as a commission date, a maintenance schedule, troubleshooting documents and training videos. Properties of this motor can also include OEE (Overall Equipment Efficiency), Net Asset Value, or other performance and resource planning metrics. Some of this data may be coming from PLCs, some from databases like SQL Server, some from user input, and other data is coming from programmed calculations. In this situation, it is not important how this data is generated or where it is stored. What is important is that this data can be visualized at any time in whatever way suits your collaborative needs.

There are a number of different tools that can be used to create an information model for your organization. A few things to consider when choosing an information modeling tool:

  • Does the modeling software take into account both real-time AND historical data?
  • Does the modeling software allow you to include ALL relevant information from every source?
  • Is your modeled data logged in a relational database like SQL Server so it can be queried if additional information is needed?
  • Does your modeling software provide the tools you need to visualize your data in a useful way that supports decision-making?
Before you jump into a new software product and a new data management system, do some homework. As with everything there are pros and cons to the different products available.

The Integrated Enterprise – Are We Ready?

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There are many barriers to change in a commercial enterprise, and most of them start with a dollar sign. You are comfortable with what you’re doing. Your staff is comfortable. Sure, there may be some missed opportunities, but perfection is unrealistic. To implement enterprise-wide changes to something like your data management strategy would require cooperation across multiple departments, absorb numerous man-hours in implementation, and who can say how long it will take for all parties to get used to the new strategy and work with a level of comfort they already feel today? Is it worth it? How long will it take to recover the investment?

There are many legitimate questions to ask when considering whether or not to move toward an integrated data management strategy. How do we calculate the true cost of making such a change? A question that is very rarely asked is: What is the true cost of not making such a change?

First, let’s consider some of the reasons in favor of data integration.

Inconsistent data

One of the problems addressed by data integration is inconsistency between data on the plant floor and the business data further upstairs. Depending on the type of business, different departments typically have different goals and criteria for success. The plant floor supervisor wants to know where his products are; the executive upstairs wants to know how much his products are worth. Here is a case where we have different people querying for different bits of information about the same asset. Over time, the different goals and process definitions have led to departments using the same terms to describe different things, and different terms to describe the same things. This barrier to departmental collaboration in the manufacturing industry, for example, has led to the development of standards like ISA 95 to help facilitate the integration of manufacturing systems with business systems.

Redundant data

Another common condition is the tendency for different departments or divisions to have different ways of recording information about the same things. It is not at all unusual for large organizations to have multiple records of the same asset. For instance, if we imagine a particular production unit from the perspective of the plant floor operator, he will need to have information about where it is in the production process, its quality, the personnel involved in its production and testing, and when it will be shipping. At the same time, a manager will want to have information about how much it cost to produce this unit, how many units will be produced today, and how much we will get for it. We now have a situation where we are capturing and recording separate sets of data about the same thing.

Fewer Human Resources

This one seems obvious, but it a significant difference-maker when you analyze your bottom line. Making it easier to find needed data will allow personnel to spend more time focusing on other aspects of their jobs. It will allow for faster decisions and more immediate response to abnormal conditions. Your plant floor supervisor won’t have to make that call upstairs to find out why today’s production schedule has changed, or log in to a separate system to find out when a piece of equipment was last inspected. And the manager upstairs won’t have to call downstairs to find out why we are behind schedule today, or what happened to that shipment that was supposed to go out. Having the ability to quickly assess a situation leads to better-informed decisions made more quickly and with more immediate results.

Reduced Risk

While we are on the topic of making informed decisions more quickly, this is a good time to consider the way that decisions are currently made in many enterprises. When a decision needs to be made quickly, and the data that could support that decision is not available as quickly as the decision is needed, owners and executives are left to make decisions based on intuition. Studies have suggested that about 80% of decisions are made this way. It may work and it may not. Having the right information when and where it is needed can significantly reduce the risk involved in the decision-making process.

There are many additional benefits that can be attributed to data integration. New business opportunities can be revealed. New calculations can be used to improve efficiency and coordinate processes. Improve inventory management, energy consumption, supply chain scheduling, etc. Whether you choose to use a system of data virtualization to integrate key data from different divisions, a system of data federation to consolidate all enterprise data, or opt for a complete data integration solution that re-engineers your entire data system, the benefits are very real and yes, so is the cost. The cost, however, is a short-term loss for a long-term gain; a temporary pain for permanent growth.

So, to revisit the topic of this article: Are we ready for the integrated enterprise? The answer is irrelevant. Those who are ready will continue to prosper. Those who are not will lose the ability to compete, and will ultimately have to get ready or get out of the way.

For more information on how you can integrate and visualize your business’s data, visit: www.scada.com