Intuitive Technology Corp.Marlboro, Mass.

Dec. 21, 2004
Doug Bartholomew, Samuel Greengard, Glenn Hasek, John Jesitus, Scott Leibs, Kristin Ohlson, Robert Patton, Barb Schmitz, Tim Stevens, and John Teresko contributed to this article. Like courtrooms during sensational trials, factories usually can't accommodate all the people who'd like to know what's going on inside them. Even if access to the plant floor isn't restricted, it may be awkward for someone based in, say, Amsterdam to go to Detroit just to make sure the lines are moving smoothly. But a new software application that runs over the Internet makes it possible for anyone with a PC to monitor a wide range of process-control information, real-time or historical, with just two clicks of the mouse. Dubbed Web@aGlance, the software uses several popular Internet technologies (such as Sun Microsystem Inc.'s Java programming language and Microsoft Corp.'s Front Page editor) to create animated process-control consoles that can be viewed by anyone with Internet access. This means engineers or managers far removed from the plant floor (at home, at the office, or anywhere else) can quickly call up a display that mimics exactly what they'd see if they were on the shop floor looking over an operator's shoulder. Remote viewing of process-control information isn't new, but until now it has required customized software expensive and complicated enough to restrict usage. But with company intranets now common and with many employees familiar with the browser interface of intranet and Internet sites, it becomes possible to view these data from any type of PC (including the latest "thin clients") from just about anywhere. "Information that used to be tied up in one place can now be taken around the globe," says Dave Copeland, president of Intuitive. "That not only improves the production process, but aids in decision-making and in sharing information with customers." Intuitive got its start in 1993, spinning off from Digital Equipment Corp. Its primary product has been the @aGlance/IT data server, which most major process-system vendors (including Wonderware Corp., Intellution Inc., and Elsag Bailey Process Automation NV) have built into their process-control and data-historian systems. Web@aGlance takes the data from those servers and presents them in a variety of ways depending on a user's preference. "If someone wants to just look at a column of numbers, we do that," Copeland says. "If they want to see it as a gauge, we present it that way. If they like it as a graphic, for example, as a picture of a tank with the fluid level indicated, the system can show it that way." One appealing aspect of Web@aGlance's design is that there is no need to install any special software on the desktop. As long as the desktop device is connected to an intranet or the Internet, it can access Web@aGlance displays. That minimizes both technical and licensing complexity. Screens are updated only when values change, thus avoiding unnecessary network traffic. Although the Internet may seem like a logical conduit for transmitting process-control information, so far Intuitive claims to be the only one doing it in real time with a browser interface. Being first has had its challenges -- the company acknowledges that many of the technologies it must employ are brand-new, changing quickly, and sometimes difficult to make work with both older systems and emerging software. But customers say Intuitive is doing it right. "Everybody in manufacturing wants to see what's going on in the plant right now," says Ed Withee, president of Manufacturing Application eXperts, Millis, Mass. "That's why this product is extremely attractive -- it handles the job very well." Withee's company is a systems integrator, selling bundled solutions to a range of manufacturing customers. "We have one biotech client that has to spend 20 minutes getting gowned up, even to go to the floor to answer a basic question. With Web@aGlance they can view all the data from their PC and communicate an answer instantly."

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