The Right Connections

Texas Instruments improves competitiveness with factory communications.

The problem solved at Texas Instruments Inc.'s Dallas industrial complex is still all too common at most manufacturing facilities: an abundance of software-enabled process equipment yet no easy management access to valuable process data. Legacy systems typically don't provide it. So when management or technicians need process data, there is no way to avoid going onto the production floor to get it. What was and is very different about TI's facility is that it is a semiconductor fab operating in an extremely competitive market where process data is important strategic knowledge. One of 10 that the company operates globally, the fab depends on process data to maintain the quality of wafers worth upward of $100,000 each. Assuring the integrity of the product is not just a matter of governing the operating parameters of the production process. The whole building environment also must be monitored and controlled. TI decided it simply was not acceptable for the decisions of the building-support-group personnel to be jeopardized by inadequate links to the fab support systems. Those include equipment controlling airflow, water treatment, and gas detection. To meet the connectivity requirements, TI turned to Dallas-based Industrial Networking Solutions Inc., a distributor of network components and test equipment, to Ethernet-enable the facility systems. The solution was designed using Device Servers from Lantronix Inc., Irvine, Calif. Serving as a translator that empowers equipment to "speak" Ethernet, the component typically contains memory and a processor, but no keyboard, hard disk, or screen. Capable of being connected to almost any factory device that runs on software, the Device Server for factory automation purposes represents the evolution of technology that originated as a solution for networking office equipment such as printers. At TI's semiconductor plant, the Device Servers are part of a scheme to give management and control-room technicians ready access to process data. With fab process information now readily available via 500 PCs, the time savings are enormous. The Ethernet solution does far more than eliminate the need for an operator to patrol the floor and monitor systems individually. The connectivity provided by the solution guarantees fast response time when out-of-tolerance conditions are detected. "Real-time access to information generated from around the facility saves us time and money and reduces the risk of errors and facility downtime," says TI's Todd Petty, technical specialist. Water treatment is another critical element controlled in the facilities group. Prior to implementing the Device-Server-based system, the process for measuring and reading the concentration of contaminants in a water sample was complicated and involved transferring a signal from a water analyzer to a programmable logic controller to a human machine interface (HMI). When reading the information, the opportunity for error increased as the signal passed through each separate device. The measurements are so small that any degree of error can be detrimental. Using the Lantronix Device Servers, TI can measure contaminants directly at the source of the water sample. The Device Servers turn into a communications port and communicate directly with the HMI, reducing the risk for errors and providing information on the process in real time. Petty says the next step at TI is to network-enable the airflow control process in the fab. The Device Servers will be connected to fans outside the factory and will be used to monitor circulation and airflow.

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