Moving SOA onto the Plant Floor

This year has seen a number of dynamic technologies advance the process of data integration, from Web portals and composite applications to Microsoft's .NET and SAP's NetWeaver. But one technology stands out: service-oriented architecture (SOA). Until recently, SOA's ability to reach its potential in the manufacturing environment was blocked by its inability to efficiently access sensor data. New products on the market may change that.

What Is SOA?

First articulated by the Gartner Group in 1996, SOAs offer a radical change in the way software applications are conceived, designed, and implemented. The new paradigm breaks down applications into individual blocks of data and functions, eliminates the barriers that make applications islands of functionality, and melds the functions into larger composite applications.

An SOA is a software framework that encompasses a collection of applications, which can be based on a variety of operating systems and languages. It defines the applications' data and functions and makes these resources available as services to all the software participating in the framework. In this way, an SOA allows the software to integrate and interact seamlessly with other programs.

Limited Implementation

It is difficult to evaluate the benefits of SOAs in industrial production environments because software vendors have concentrated on implementing SOA technology in applications for industries that support a high volume of data movement, such as financial institutions. Vendors supplying software for plant-floor systems have been slow to adopt the technology.

"You have Rockwell, Siemens, GE Fanuc—all have some SOA parts in products due to hit the market soon," says Jack Wilkins, Proficy product manager for GE Fanuc Automation. "But we haven't been as gung ho as the vendors providing banking applications. If you look in the front office, SOA is definitely there. In manufacturing environments, with manufacturing software, it's a little more tenuous. You have some of the leading-edge applications from vendors implementing it, but a lot of the true production management-style systems probably aren't there yet across most of the vendors."

Where's the Payback?

The vendors are reticent because it's difficult to show manufacturers a return on investment (ROI) when the technology is applied to production control and monitoring systems. "When we move onto the plant floor for the manufacturing applications, SOA becomes a bigger payback issue because the ROI is going to be harder to justify," says Wilkins. "You typically don't have the same volume of transactional requirements between the front office and the manufacturing floor."

However, the growing presence of a genre of software that can roughly be described as sensor middleware may make SOA's ROI much more visible. Examples of this type of software include Augusta Systems' SensorBridge, which enables rapid integration of sensor assets into existing data systems; Rockwell's FactoryTalk Integrator, which allows manufacturers to more easily connect plant-floor applications with higher-level business systems; and Sensicast's SensiNet Services Gateway, which integrates wireless sensor networks with legacy control systems, internal applications, M2M platforms, and Web 2.0 interfaces. These software packages provide the missing link between the sensor and the SOA.

If a manufacturing software vendor goes into a facility, it may take the services team three or four weeks to write code to enable its application to interact with the various sensors in the plant. But if the sensor manufacturers' products already have the software "hooks" that allow the sensor data to be accessed by the SOA, the implementation has a quicker ROI. If the SOA vendors can leverage this sensor middleware, they can dramatically reduce the time-to-value for the customers.

Tom Kevan is a freelance writer/editor specializing in information technology and communications.