Have I Lost My Mind?!

I admit that this may sound crazy, but I’ve been known to do and say crazy things. After all, I recently changed my title to “Director of WOW!”. One time, a long time ago, I published a newsletter where I said that DeviceNet was dead. That was at the time that DeviceNet was an up and coming technology. It caused quite a stir. People wanted to throw me out of the ODVA. I got a very angry call from a very large industrial automation company blaming me because a bunch of their customers were calling them and wondering what their next move was now that DeviceNet technology was obsolete. I thought it was funny that little ol’ me had a better communication channel to their customers than they did. They didn’t think it was funny at all.

The craziness I’m delivering today stems from a conversation I had at ARC in Orlando (yes, they have it in Florida in February – they’re smart guys). I was speaking with the manager of what you could call an outdoor warehouse. Their factory spits out these pretty big steel gizmos that get temporarily stored in this big, open-air warehouse until they are trucked out to customers. He has gizmos of different sizes coming and going all day long, and they have to know where each one is, find the right size space for new ones and make sure they have adequate parking spaces when the factory cranks up operation. Not knowing exactly how many and what size gizmos are coming complicates the situation.

He uses several overhead cranes to move these things around and, of course, he has to make sure that the cranes don’t drop the gizmos, don’t damage them by knocking them around and that the cranes don’t run into each other. It’s a hard (but interesting) problem. He recently just made them “driverless.” No operators. They’re self-driving just like a Tesla except his cranes operate in three dimensions. The benefits of this are obvious. The cranes can now work 24 hours a day; no breaks, no lunches, no operator training and the rest. It helps to solve their difficulty finding enough workers at the plant in an economy with a labor shortage.

I thought the system was fascinating, but there was one little piece of it that I found exceptionally interesting. Each of the gizmos coming out of the factory is identified by a barcode. When the crane approaches one of these things, it reads the barcode to make sure that it is picking up the correct item. So, he needs a barcode reader.

Of course, he looked at a number of connected readers; readers on PROFINET IO, Profibus DP and some wireless readers (he’s using Siemens PLCs). None of those solutions appealed to him. He really didn’t want a one-device network, either PROFINET IO or Profibus DP, on each crane. That seemed like a maintenance and operational headache. Plus, network-enabled barcode readers are very pricey. He thought about using a wireless one, but there are a lot of operational challenges to that. He’d have to work with IT, and in his company, that’s not appealing.

The solution he settled on was getting a cheap barcode reader that emits an ASCII string over RS232 or USB and using a gateway like the kind that RTA makes to move the data into his PLC. He laughed when I told him that moving barcode data into PLCs was the first gateway product we ever made and still one of our best-selling products. We’ve been moving barcodes into PLCs for almost fifteen years now.

It sounds crazy to say, in 2019, that an RS232 solution is the best option, but in this case, it really is. And when you want to move ASCII data, there is only one company that is the best at it. And that’s RTA. You can find the entire line of gateways to move ASCII data by following this link.

Maybe I’m not so crazy after all…