Can I Admit Something


Can I admit something? I am just not an e-reader kind of guy. I really like sitting there with a book on my lap, turning pages, writing words I don’t know inside the back cover and highlighting stuff that I’d like to come back to.


I also like having an overflowing bookshelf that I can look through once in a while. I see a book I’ve read, flip through the pages and see what I highlighted back then. Some, usually wealthy people, call a bookshelf like that a “Success Library”. I don’t know about that but I do know that I like looking at it every day.


There are a number of other old, obsolete things I just like. For example, I like my Garmin. It’s not that I hate the mapping system on my iPhone; it’s that the Garmin is more functional and has a better user interface. I can get by using the iPhone for directions but I just miss the ease-of-use I have with the Garmin. I think it’s a shame that they’ve lost a huge portion of their sales to the mapping apps on phones.


I also like old-fashioned DVDs. Netflix is OK but again that user interface is really awful. With my DVDs, I don’t need to wonder if there is enough bandwidth in my neighborhood to watch my movie. And I can see trailers, I can easily turn on captions and I get audio commentaries. And they’re right there for me when I need them even though I do realize that I’ll probably throw them all out when the next wave of movie players hits the market.


Where am I going with all this? I am working up to saying that I really like DeviceNet and Profibus DP. I know it’s not politically correct in today’s day and age but I really like those old technologies. It’s kind of like THAT awkward time in a relationship. You’re afraid to say “I Love You” in case the other person responds with “ah….ah….. thank you”.


In this day and age we’re all supposed to be in love with everything Ethernet. Revel in DHCP, DNS Servers, routers, switches, MACs and PHYs. I think that’s what Dorothy said on the yellow brick road: “Routers and Switches and Macs and Phys Oh My… Routers and Switches and Macs and Phys Oh My”.


It’s not that I don’t appreciate the simplicity of Modbus TCP. It’s not that I don’t admire how easy it is to make an EtherNet/IP Source Code stack operational and it’s not that I don’t marvel at all the features in a Profinet IO Source Code stack. I just like the old time, bare bones, working man style of Profibus and DeviceNet.


Profibus has balls. It has to. Anything that can operate that fast and force device vendors to include ASICs and special software stacks in there device has to. DeviceNet, on the other hand, is …


ASCII-May-1-2014I’ve been around the Industrial Automation industry for a fair amount of time now. Just today, I opened one of the old filing cabinets in our storage room and found oodles of old projects. Some of the stuff was older than my first Oldsmobile (that’s three or maybe four cars ago).


Looking through the projects I realized how many of those old projects had to do with moving ASCII data around. In those days, ASCII was pretty much all we had. That was way before all the fancy protocols. Long before Profibus and DeviceNet and long before Ethernet. Heck, some of those projects were before I had even heard of Modbus.


In those days, our work focused on moving that ASCII data into PLCs over RS232 and RS485 data channels. We worked with old Allen-Bradley modules like the 2760-RB and the 1746-BAS modules. They were temperamental beasts but solid. It wasn’t elegant or easy but they got the job done.


Now it’s 2014 and you know what, ASCII still lives. It’s the basis for XML so it’s a key component of the Internet. But beyond that there are still thousands of automation devices that spit out ASCII messages. Most of these are old devices based on now archaic 8-bit processors. And it’s likely they are going to be around for a while. These things have been in production forever and they still work so there’s little incentive to redesign them.


But in today’s automation architecture, ASCII doesn’t fit very well. RS232 connections are limited to 50 feet while RS485 is limited to only 1000 feet so proximity is an issue. But more than that, you need a serial port to receive the data. Serial ports are an endangered species now days. PC makers eliminated them from PCs to save cost a number of years ago. PLC manufacturers killed them off too for the same reason. The metals in the connector and space requirements were just too costly.


So, lots of automation engineers that need to move ASCII data into PLCs or onto industrial networks are left in a bind. They still have barcode readers, meters, scales and other devices generating ASCII data that they want to send to a PLC but now they have no serial port to send that data to.


Well, I opened the door to our Engineering department the other day, always good to air it out once in a while, and I learned that we had the perfect device for this. Control Engineers and Systems Engineers can now get a device that moves ASCII data into PLCs and onto Ethernet networks like EtherNet/IP, Modbus TCP and Profinet IO. Besides that, it can move data onto DeviceNet and Profibus and Modbus networks.


That’s all fine but there were two features that got me really excited. One, we can support multiple physical layers. The ASCII data can come from TCP, Serial RS232 or RS485 or even USB. Yes, you can …

UA in Europe


OPC UA continues to explode in Europe and Germany in particular. For those of you that haven’t been following along UA is the enhancement (in actuality replacement) for the OPC that we’ve known and loved all these years.


OPC Classic, just like Classic Coke, is the version of OPC that we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. It’s done a fine job of connecting devices to PC applications. And it’s made companies like Kepware and Matrikon exceptionally successful. Selling the same software driver 10,000 times will do that.


But Classic reached the end of its natural life some time ago for a lot of good reasons. For one, it’s based on old, obsolete Microsoft technology; Microsoft COM and DCOM. That was fine it its day but is now superseded by SOAP and Web Services. And because it was Microsoft technology OPC was limited to Windows and lots of people, were really uncomfortable with Windows. Having a platform on your factory floor that changes every 18 months involved in a process that you expect to keep running for ten years just wasn’t viable. And there was a bunch of issues around limited data models, security and accessibility through the firewalls to the Enterprise side of the business.


I think that a lot of the resistance to UA in the states is that Rockwell is not really promoting it. A majority of the market in the US follows the lead of Rockwell. They pay attention to what Rockwell is promoting, the products that Rockwell is selling and the architectures that they suggest are appropriate for today’s need to bring the Enterprise together with the factory floor.


Right now, Rockwell has a very limited solution for UA. It really doesn’t fit the kind of architecture that they envision for the future so there is little being said about it. That means that their distributors are really unaware of what the UA technology is and it’s the same with the customers of those distributors. I don’t blame any of those people. In this era of downsizing, everyone is doing three jobs, working longer hours than ever, not going to tradeshows, reading fewer and fewer magazines so it’s exceptionally hard for them to keep up on trends and new technologies. They rely on their key vendor to tell them what they need.


It’s not the same way in Europe. Over there Siemens is investing heavily in UA. Their PLCs are coming equipped with UA. Products like Motor Starters are coming equipped with UA. They are making a big effort and it is sort of alarming.


It’s alarming because the European vendors are going to have a huge leg up on the American vendors when it comes to Enterprise / Factory Floor integration. In the US we have the EtherNet/IP people claiming that you can use EtherNet/IP. We have the Profinet IO people telling us we can use Profinet IO. That’s all nonsense. Those things are I/O protocols pure …

Waste Water


I had an unusual opportunity today. My days are generally filled with all sorts of unusual things. Very weird seatmates on airplanes, strange mechanical mishaps and, sometimes, most unusually, a pretty girl smiling at me. (Alright that nearly never happens but I continue to hope to run into a pretty girl with unusually poor eyesight).


Well, last night I had the opportunity to wander around a huge Waste Water Treatment plant. I really can’t tell you about the smells at the input end of the process. I’ll would leave that to your imagination but believe me, you can’t imagine it anyway.


Over the last 15 years or so the plant has automated. Prior to that time they had a single PLC 5 running a very small part of the process. When there was a “weather event”, which I found means “it’s raining”, a bunch of people would run all over the plant opening, closing and adjusting valves.


It’s not unusual for their input to go from 20 million gallons to 200 million gallons during one of those “weather events”. That necessitates lots of adjusting and manipulating. So about 15 years ago they started to automate the process. They choose AB PLCs, ControlLogix and CompactLogix , for the job. They now have a lot of the pumps, drives, valves connected to those PLCs on EtherNet/IP and can much more easily handle a weather event. In fact, they staff the plant with only two people on off hours but could just as easily get by with one.


One of the key points made to me was that both the Ethernet control network and the Ethernet office network are both disconnected from the Internet. They feel that they have such an important responsibility to the citizens of the area that they just can’t take a chance at a virus infecting either their business systems or their process control systems. They have gone as far as to give everyone two computers; one on the plant networks and one on the internet.


They follow that plan with their lift stations. Most of the smelly “inputs” come to them via gravity. But in a number of areas the geography is such that they need to lift these inputs from a lower area to a higher area to continue the journey to the plant. Each of these lift stations is totally independent. Prior to a few years ago they had a dedicated phone line to each station. Now they’ve replaced those telephone lines with satellite links and constantly upload information from the stations. Little to no control information is sent to the lift stations as they operate automatically. They also perceive this as a security measure.


My impressions.


My first thought is that they are very naïve about the threats to their waste water plant. Most successful attacks on industrial facilities are not carried out over the internet. In fact, that is the most difficult way to attack a …

OPC UA: Data Type vs. DataTypeDefinition


Terminology is always a killer. It seems that we humans have to use special words among our own kind that only we understand. It’s pervasive. Every group of people, not just technologists, have words that they use that have special meaning and that only their own people, the people on the inside can understand what the hell they are talking about.


Sometimes this is funny. Last year I went to an INC 500 conference. It was really cool. Really fun. I met some people that are into building small business culture and those contacts have been really valuable to me.


Well after the conference I am talking to a young woman in her 20s and told her that I just came back from the INC conference. She goes “Wow – I didn’t think you would be into that stuff”. I was puzzled. What did she mean? Well we talked a bit and what she heard as “I N K”, like Tattoo Ink. She thought I spent a week in California hanging out with a group of people talking about getting Tats, doing Tats and equipment for Tats. Unfortunately, when she figured out we weren’t talking about the same thing I became very uncool, very fast.


I thought about this the other day when I was at the M2M conference where they were all talking about CIP. CIP trunking and all sorts of stuff related to CIP. Well, of course, I am thinking about the Common Industrial Protocol (CIP) of EtherNet/IP and DeviceNet fame but they, of course, were talking about something completely different. They were talking about “S I P” which I figured out was a technology in the telecom industry.


Then the next morning I am studying the OPC UA spec again – for the 200th time and I get real confused. It turns out that a UA Node has an Attribute called a DataType and a Reference to another node called a DataTypeDefinition. Of course, that confused me. You would think that the OPC UA DataType Attribute would be related somehow to the OPC UA DataTypeDefinition. No reason to have both right?


Well if you thought that, you’d be wrong. Very wrong. But it takes a few days of study to figure it out.


The DataType is the type of the value attribute in a Variable Type node. The type can be Boolean, UINT32, INT8 or one of many other predefined data types. What’s nice is that you can reference these types back to the OPC UA foundation where they are defined so that if two servers both use UINT32 there is no confusion as to which byte is the MSB and which is the LSB and that sort of thing. Each of those types is a predefined NodeID defined in a file on the UA website. And you can always make your own if you have some complex data type that doesn’t already exist.


So what’s the DataTypeDefinition (DTD)? …