Newsletter Insert July 2012

Drew & Scott’s Young Gun Automation Insert

It’s Not Your Fault but You Will Be Blamed

I had an interesting conversation with a customer the other week. He is in the printing business. His story was typical of many printers. Business is way down and competition is cut throat. What surprised me was how his business was dealing with the change and what they thought the real issue was. He said the biggest issue was training young guys who were inept. Their lack of skills and experience lead to a lot of messed up orders, missed deliveries and this had become a huge issue for the company.

The stage was set for the timeless argument of Worthless Whippersnapper vs. Stubborn set-in-their-way seniors begins. I have enough pride scars to be mindful of seniors but I think a case for a W.W. (Worthless Whippersnapper) win can be made here.

The gentlemen told me that most of the employees had been operating their machines for 30+ years. They came out of high school and have stayed with the company ever since. They are all well paid for their experience and are masters of their craft. Business is down and guys are getting laid off in their late 40’s and 50’s with no other skills to obtain work at even half their current pay.

He went on to say that with a single test run senior operators could quickly react and set the printer to create a perfect production run. They could literally sense a problem on the lines with their eyes closed because they were honed to the sounds of the machine and it’s vibrations. The new guys couldn’t come close. Some were so bad they couldn’t visually detect margin errors on test runs.

My heart strings are pulled for the guys that are losing their livelihoods. I have a thorough respect for people who master their craft. I don’t care what the craft is. That said the issue here clearly has nothing to do with the lacking of the next generation coming in, or even training systems. The young employees are not the cause of the problems rather they are the litmus test that exposed the problem.

For 30+ years this company had gotten by investing in people who work on machines that are still primarily mechanically driven, synced and linked. Instead of upgrading their infrastructure these companies shelled out wages to qualified people who’s skill offset the shortcomings of the machines. Those skilled hands are now legacy overhead costs that can’t be covered in a competitive market. This leaves the flawed underlying system exposed for the first time.

Everything about the process described seems dated and flawed now. Execute a test run, then based on the result make adjustments. How much waste is created with this completely reactionary approach? For even the most skilled hand how much is lost to human error? What part of this process could not be more efficiently executed with Automation and Controls?

A control system could over see the machine through all 3 shifts, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. It could sense vibrations and sounds inaudible to the human ear, take measurements to increments uninterruptable by the human eye. It could actively monitor and adjust 1000’s of sensors and instruments on the fly at speeds that would take an army of skilled people to accomplish. Saving on down time, waste, errors and maintenance costs. This technology was not available 40 years ago when these machines were made, but they are available now. Isn’t it time to adapt or die? John Henry had a great run driving steel but the steam driver bested him in the end.
The lesson us Young’ns need to learn is to swallow our pride. We have nothing to gain sparing with our seniors, this is not an argument worth winning. We need to learn from them and most importantly learn a lesson many of them missed. Hone your skills for an evolving and competitive market or risk being left behind. Today offers no promises for tomorrow.

BACnet: There’s Automation in that Darn Building.

BACnet is a term that has crept into the conversations of many automation professionals. For those rooted on the industrial side of market the terms may seem like Voodoo but it doesn’t have to. With it’s strong adoption and growth this is a protocol you should have some understanding of. Let’s get started!

Why Should I Learn about BACnet?

The answer is simple, because it is popular and growing protocol meeting the needs of a flourishing Building Automation Market. Building Automation is a growing trend. Cost savings government mandates and green attitudes have created automation opportunities in buildings of all sizes.

More than a dozen states have made the BACnet/IP the control protocol for all state buildings. That is a lot of campus buildings, court houses and DMV buildings now consuming BACnet products and services.

The big players in building automation have also accepted BACnet as “The” standard. This is not like the protocol wars on Industrial Automation. The only other player is LONworks. With the exception of few strong holds this 30+ year old protocol is clearly in decline.

What’s the Technology all about?

BACnet is an open protocol standard. Conformance testing is offered but is not required to create or sell a BACnet product. The three main versions are as follows:

  • BACnet/IP: This is the most popular form of BACnet. Run over standard Ethernet physical layers.
  • BACnet MS/TP: This is the serial version of BACnet typically deployed on RS-485. The MS/TP stands for Master Slave /Token pass.
  • BACnet Ethernet: This is another form of BACnet based on Ethernet that never gained wide use. It can hypothetically support faster data transfer. You don’t run into this often.

Lets’s focus on BACnet/IP as it is the most popular version and is driving the adoption.

BACnet/IP is an open object orientated Client and Server protocol. The object based data format should remind you a lot of EtherNet/IP.

The things that set BACnet/IP apart are the additional naming properties associated with all objects, and that Server data is automatically recognized by the Client (assuming they support similar objects).

In the industrial PLC world efficiency in data is king, so little more than data values are usually passed. It is up to the control engineers to understand what the data is and map it into the PLC. If you look at a Modbus, Profinet or EtherNet/IP message on the wire it is worthless without associated information.

BACnet is the opposite and much more user friendly. All objects allow for an ASCII string of characters as an identifier. This makes the data much more user and PC friendly. BACnet is not an Enterprise system link protocol like OPC, but having reference data makes it a lot easier to export usable data to enterprise systems. This has helped in meeting the needs of a market based as much in IT as it is in control.

BACnet/IP also includes additional properties allowing a single point of data to have a name, unit, and alarm state associated with it. These additional properties eliminate many integration headaches.

If you have values that are more important, or are needed more frequently you can give them priority or poll them more often. BACnet allows for objects to be read every so often, as a group of objects or as a single object. In essence you get more than just cyclic updates of data.

Troubleshooting the issues within a Building Automation System are pretty straight forward. This is because the clients automatically discover devices along with all the data they have available. If they can’t find it, it is a networking problem. If they can find it, you are good to go. You don’t have to map any data.

Tid Bits to Know:
PICS: Stands for Protocol Implementation Conformance Statement. This is the document that describes the abilities of, and data types supported by a device. Like an EDS

ASHRAE: This is the user group that maintains and promotes the open BACnet Standard.

Other Protocols in Building Automation:

N2: Proprietary RS-485 protocol from Johnson Controls

Modbus RTU or TCP/IP: Modbus is everywhere and still dominates devices because of its simplicity.

LON works: Highly structured protocol developed by Echelon.

Leading BACnet Suppliers

  • Johnson Controls (Metasys)
  • Siemens (Apogee)
  • Delta Controls
  • Trane
  • Tridium