Standard communication protocols are opening new horizons for industrial software applications.

It's late on a Friday afternoon. As you walk to your car, your pager goes off, alerting you that the automated monitoring system on one of your remote critical motors detected an alarm condition that could result in motor failure and lost production. Not long ago, you would have had to return to your office, load up your motor testing equipment, strap on a tool belt, and call your spouse to say you wouldn't be home for dinner.


But this is the wireless age. Instead, you pull your PDA out of your shirt pocket and view the affected motor's electrical information (Figure 1, right). You run a remote electrical test. You compare the data to the previous alarm data. Then you retrieve the motor’s maintenance history, cross check it against the motor's vibration data, and correlate the information. Finally, you send off a work request to correct the situation. The computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) generates the work order (Figure 2, below) and notifies the resource planning system, which adjusts the production schedule accordingly. You’re done—and your dinner won’t even be cold when you get home. If this sounds like a dream, it’s not. It's actually a reality that will soon be mainstream.

The future is just around the corner. The industry has been moving away from proprietary systems that occupy their own data islands and make it difficult to share information between applications, but the maintenance function has joined the movement late. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications help businesses handle product fulfillment, logistics, and resource allocations. However, without critical information from the maintenance systems, administration based on these systems often misses its mark. An ERP integrated with the CMMS can adjust schedules, logistics, and resource allocations at the first sign of equipment trouble.

With more ERP applications linked to e-commerce businesses for made-to-order services, knowing the status of production equipment is critical. The Internet, emerging standards, wireless devices, broadband technologies, new business models, and high customer expectations are forcing individual applications to work together to improve productivity and remain competitive.

Addressing integration and automation. Condition based monitoring (CBM) vendors develop their own maintenance modules, CMMS vendors diagnose the problems from imported data, and ERP applications manage maintenance activities. However, each of these systems stores much of the same data separately, creating a housekeeping headache for you: If you change data in one system, you have to change it in them all.

To meet the needs of the manufacturing industry, several companies formed a group to create industry-wide standards that will allow different technologies to work together, automating and simplifying the work of predictive maintenance. That group, the Machinery Information Management Open System Alliance (MIMOSA), is working to define functional message sets that different systems can exchange. MIMOSA standards allow seamless integration of CBM software with CMMS, enterprise asset management (EAM), and ERP programs. Information flows upward from machinery information (at the base of the pyramid) to the resource planning (at the top). The top priority of MIMOSA is to get maintenance application vendors to adopt a standard communications protocol that will end the burden of data conversion and allow information sharing among various applications.

EXtensible markup language (XML) is the emerging standard. With no standards in place, the different software applications fit together like a jigsaw puzzle—each application is custom designed to fit only with its adjacent piece. However, using XML, these applications act more like Lego blocks—each piece fits easily with any other.

Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, XML works as a pared-down version of standard generalized markup language (SGML), designed specifically for transferring documents over the Internet. XML specifies neither semantics nor a tag set. In fact, XML is a meta-language for describing markup languages. In other words, XML allows a facility to define tags and the structural relationships between them. Since there is no predefined tag set, there cannot be any preconceived semantics. It allows designers to create their own customized tags, enabling the definition, transmission, validation, and interpretation of data between applications and organizations.

With XML, an interface defines the contents of a message. Applications sent or received can interrogate, extract, and interpret message contents by the tag, rather than by special translations. From a broader enterprise architecture view, this allows applications to leverage a common interface message framework.

XML can represent any information. That is very different from the usual ERP model, where every application has to know exactly how the data looks. The XML standard allows vendors to focus on the business they do the best. It lets end-users customize their maintenance system by selecting the products that best fit their needs. They store the data in one location, and that same data is accessible throughout the organization by other applications. For example, you wouldn’t need to import the data from an EAM into any other system; a new CBM system can retrieve asset information from the existing EAM. If the CMMS wants to know the condition of a machine, the CBM system provides the information. Everything works together simply, without duplication or fuss.

Maximizing business-to-business relations through the Internet. Adopting the XML protocol allows applications to take full advantage of the Web. Geographical location will no longer be a factor. As long as an Internet connection is available, you can access information from anywhere and at anytime. An expert residing in Tampa, Fla., can diagnose a problem in Seattle without ever leaving the office. And XML will bring business-to-business integration to the predictive maintenance world, allowing you to track the repair and maintenance records of components directly from the service providers. This prevents the delays and expenses associated with unsatisfactory repairs. For example, if you send out a 300 hp air compressor motor for repair because of a vibration problem, you can ensure the shop balances the motor before sending it back to you.

Expect remote network storage and application hosting to be popular trends in the next few years. As the cost of bandwidth drops, high-speed Internet access will become more common. This means a new breed of applications formerly too expensive for wide deployment will be readily available. Many small and mid-size businesses long to run their operations in the same efficient manner as Fortune 500 companies. However, the high cost of ERP implementation presents a significant barrier. By outsourcing application hosting and support services, companies gain a virtual IT staff and infrastructure. Application service providers deliver applications in a secure, high-performance infrastructure with network support, implementation experience, and maintenance expertise. Information will be available to all users. Outsourcing enables a company to focus on its core competencies.

Go wireless, go mobile. With this newfound integration, access to information through wireless, handheld devices is a logical progression. Devices already exist that provide wireless connections to the Internet using wireless markup language (WML), which specifies content and user interface for narrowband devices. Similar to XML, WML is also platform-independent. This paves the way for handheld devices to become the mobile terminals for employees on the move.

Fluid communications between ERP, EAM, CMMS, and CBM systems will help businesses make timely and qualified decisions. Companies will be able to select the best applications available to build systems designed for their specific needs. Maintenance/monitoring systems will provide detailed equipment information and play a larger role in enterprise resource planning. With the help of wireless devices, maintenance people will have unlimited access to information from anywhere at anytime. As technology improves, the opportunities to streamline operations expand. Standardizing communications between systems is only the start.

Wong is a software development manager for PdMA Corp., Tampa, FL.