Bridging the Gap Between the Physical World and IT Systems

E-mail Ray Peacock

Imagine having your production line's sensor data relayed in real time over the company intranet to other IT systems in the enterprise, along with related data, such as real-time updates on process throughput and yield. The key technology making this practical for industry at large is the glue that now binds the physical world of sensors with that of enterprise systems: middleware.

Gateways to Enterprise Systems
The key quality parameters of your industrial production process may be product width, thickness, furnace pressure, or SO3 content. The variables don't matter; the trends and tolerances do. Whatever the key process parameters are, if managers can access them through their enterprise network, they can quickly determine when processes are moving out of tolerance and take corrective action. Similarly, if the maintenance staff is able to monitor key sensors, they can respond to trends before system failures occur.

These capabilities are available now, and they are becoming more pervasive in the process industries. The key component to this advance is sensor translation by middleware or sensor information gateways. Sensor gateways come in the form of separate software packages, middleware, as well as hardware-software products that contain built-in middleware to enable sensor data to be directly accessed by enterprise software systems.

Dust Networks' ultra-low-power, reliable wireless mesh networking system-on-chip products bridge the information gap between the physical world and IT systems. Examples of commercial applications enabled by Dust Networks' technology include wireless monitoring of temperature, pressure, and tank levels in an oil refinery, and monitoring pollutants in smokestacks.

Crossbow Technology's products offer similar functionality. The company's MoteWorks XServe is but one example of a gateway between the sensor network and IP-based applications, effectively bridging these different worlds. Although designed to handle wireless sensor networks, it will accommodate almost any kind of sensor and provide reliable translation of sensor network data into XML messages for rapid integration into enterprise applications. The XML interface is integrated with MoteWorks' gateway server, providing a standard Web service interface.

XServe also includes local database capabilities for logging and analysis of messages received from the network. Through standard SQL database interfaces, applications can analyze the sensor network, either locally or remotely, turning raw sensor data into valuable knowledge about the environment and the network. XServe can be deployed running on dedicated hardware, such as a network appliance, or on standard enterprise server hardware.

Octave Technology Inc. recently announced the launch of its flagship product, the OCTAVEX Wireless Sensor Framework 1.0. The software platform assists end users, systems integrators, software developers, and OEMS in the deployment and management of wireless sensor networks. It addresses a growing need for companies to properly manage the large amount of data provided by wireless sensors while leveraging the IT infrastructure and applications currently in place.

Sensicast's SensiNet Services Gateway provides data access and external communications for SensiNet. A self-contained network management and access appliance, Sensicast's Services Gateway lets you securely access and analyze data collected by smart sensors using a convenient browser interface. For larger installations with legacy monitoring and control software, the Services Gateway communicates sensor data directly to dozens of industrial automation software applications, including Wonderware, LabView, RS View, OSI PI, ICONICS, Citect, ModBus, ODBC, and OPC-compatible software, such as Intellution and Microsoft Excel. The Services Gateway easily connects to custom software, legacy applications, and Web-based applications through a robust set of Web-standard interfaces, such as OPC Data Access (DA and AE), ModBus/TCP Input and Output Connection, SOAP Interface, and Secure M2M.

A quote from the background statement at ACM SenSys 2006, The 4th ACM Conference on Embedded Networked Sensor Systems makes the point more succinctly: "Distributed systems based on networked sensors and actuators with embedded computation capabilities allow for an instrumentation of the physical world at an unprecedented scale and density, thus enabling a new generation of monitoring and control applications."

There are many other examples of the larger companies getting their middleware in line, such as SAP's NetWeaver, IBM's WebSphere, and Rockwell's FactoryTalk, a WebSphere application. For more information on these and similar products and technologies, see Tom Kevan's Extreme Data column on Sensors' Web site.

Sensor middleware and more comprehensive integration of data sources and systems are now a fact of life. We are over the threshold. Welcome to the new world of networked sensors information.

Other Resources and New Standards
After writing so much in October's Industrial Automation Newsletter on standards, calibration, and traceability, it seems useful to point out some additional resources and developments in related areas.

For an excellent online reference on the basics of metrology and the worldwide network of resource laboratories and the National Measurement Institutes, download Metrology in Short from the National Physical Laboratory in the U.K. It puts the whole reasoning behind an international measurement system in perspective.

If you wish to get into the nuts and bolts of statistical details of manufacturing, look no further than the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's free online handbook NIST/SEMATECH e-Handbook of Statistical Methods, which was jointly developed by NIST's Statistical Engineering Division and the semiconductor industry's SEMATECH research organization. The handbook covers every aspect of measurement statistics and quality assurance methods. Beware: This resource is not for the newcomer or neophyte. It is heavy in mathematics (the language of statistics), but not high-level math, just tons and tons of it. It may be read online, downloaded in sections and chapters, or downloaded in its entirety.

Meanwhile, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Performance Test Code, ASME PT19.3-1974 Temperature Measurement is long overdue for a rewrite. A select group of specialists from industry, research, and academia have been meeting for several years to make it happen. I wouldn't be surprised to see a report on a replacement standard in 2007.

In addition, the world of noncontact temperature measurement will be getting some new standards to help both users and manufacturers speak a common language on specifications in the near future. An international committee of the International Electrotechnical Commission is developing new technical specifications for radiation thermometers (which include infrared thermometers, popularly known as IR or laser thermometers). Their goal is similar to that of several other international and local standards, such as ASTM E-1256, but they are more focused and in greater detail. The first standard concentrates on more precise and practical terminology, much like the original approach to the ISO standards for quality management. ISO 9000 was preceded by the ISO Guide 99, international vocabulary of basic and general terms in metrology (known as VIM).