Manufacturing and process industries have never had it so tough. Faced with multiple challenges in a rapidly evolving business environment, they have to run harder than ever before to avoid being dragged into a mug's game. One of the keys to success in this demanding scenario is integration that links the shop floor to the higher echelons of the enterprise. And there's a new technology in town that does precisely this, and then some.
SmartBox is a trailblazing industrial controller that integrates plant-level operations with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. It is an embedded software solution that can perform complicated algorithms, regulate large equipment and processes, and bring desktop technologies to the shop floor. SmartBox allows the manager on the top floor to track and command, by way of remote control, operational effectiveness at the plant.
This standout solution is the fruit of a 10-month research and development collaboration between Tata Consultancy Services, Asia's leading software organisation, and the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), a research institute of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. The initiative involved four professionals each from the two organisations.
"The smart controller will deliver unprecedented capability to deploy advanced automation applications as modular and scalable solutions," said Ravi Gopinath, global head of TCS's manufacturing practice. "This will result in tremendous cost reduction and will be critical in increasing operational efficiencies through automation." Dr Gopinath was speaking at SmartBox's project completion function in Singapore on January 16, 2003. The project was kicked off in February 2002.
Unlike other devices of its kind in the market, SmartBox uses completely flexible and open architecture that allows it to work on vendor-independent hardware. This enables manufacturers to create low-cost and malleable point solutions quickly and easily. SmartBox succeeds in doing what engineers have tried to do for years bring high-level control closer to the actual production process.
This is a controller that can collect data over a communication network from virtually any device or system. It can then control, monitor and optimise the operations of any system, be they large and complex plants or simple, single-user devices. Using SmartBox manufacturers can run mission-critical embedded applications in existing or new production and process equipment. These applications can be developed, controlled and diagnosed remotely over the Internet using a personal digital assistant and other web-enabled devices.
TCS's marketing strategy for SmartBox focuses on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and end users in industries that require real-time responses, such as semiconductors, process manufacturing, cement and automobiles. SmartBox's capabilities allow manufacturing orders and commands to be remotely issued and shop-floor status to be accessed quickly and non-intrusively. Remote applications of this kind are critical in areas where human access is restricted, such as in semiconductor clean rooms and unmanned automation systems.
TCS and SIMTech plan to leverage their respective skills to create value-added point solutions, based on SmartBox, that address specific industry problems. They will also collaborate with OEMs and system integrators to customise SmartBox for specific solution environments. TCS has already announced its aim to develop CemPac, its solution for the cement industry, on the SmartBox platform. This would provide its customers with much greater deployment flexibility.
TCS took the lead in developing SmartBox because it sensed the need for a controller that would perform higher-level functions as well as connect existing and legacy control systems to enterprise systems. It chose SIMTech as a partner in the project because of the latters proven strength in the automation and manufacturing domains. The Singapore connection meant that TCS had access to the ideal research and development infrastructure and a large customer base, particularly in the semiconductor business.
The SmartBox initiative is part of Singapore's thrust to establish itself as a world-class global research and development centre. SIMTech, formerly known as Gintic Institute of Manufacturing Technology, contributes to the competitiveness of Singapore industry through the generation and application of advanced manufacturing technology. Since its inception in 1993, it has completed more than 600 projects for close to 400 companies in, among other sectors, electronics, precision engineering, aerospace and logistics.
"We combined SIMTech's manufacturing expertise and solutions prototyping infrastructure with TCS's industrial automation and embedded software development experience to rapidly develop SmartBox," says Dr Gopinath. "We believe that industrial automation systems will move to a framework based on open standards and platform-independent software applications. This development will give TCS a lead advantage as a solution provider in this space."
TCS's plans for its futuristic baby include setting up a SmartBox application development centre, working jointly with OEMs to deploy SmartBox point solutions in the semiconductor, robotics, process control and machine control industries, and, most importantly, making a product of this technology.
"The idea is to either sell this technology to people who are building such things today or partner someone who makes the hardware," says Rajesh Maisheri, a member of the team that developed SmartBox. "We could have developed SmartBox in India, but we could never have got the kind of coverage we did. That's thanks to the partnership with SIMTech."
Low cost of ownership and operation, software that can be configured and upgraded with little effort, quick customisation, vendor independence in hardware and software, a high degree of flexibility and scalability the benefits that SmartBox delivers are manifold. Manufacturers, a hassled lot in the best of time, can look forward to easier days with this outstanding innovation.