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Information technology (IT) continues to evolve from day to day. Its impact extends beyond the field of "information" to "industrial" areas, as represented by such new words as Big Data, M2M (Machine to Machine) and IoT (Internet of Things).

In line with this trend, Hitachi has newly developed a communication board for industrial equipment. The new board connects a variety of devices, or machines, installed in manufacturing plants. In developing the board, the researchers tackled with the issue of "how to respond to the requirements of different machines using the limited resources of the board." Their enthusiasm for the art of manufacturing is embodied in this board.

(Publication: October 13, 2015)

"Fusion" generates changes to the world

It appears that companies are taking interesting actions in utilizing IT.

BONDANThat's right. In short, a "fusion" of the industrial and information areas is taking place. For example, a variety of industrial equipment installed in manufacturing plants is connected through an information network to collect operational data on a real-time basis. This makes it possible to reduce waste in power consumption and efficiently manage tens to hundreds of machines. It will also quicken decision-making as it is possible to check what is happening in which area of a plant at any time.
This trend is seen not only in Japan but also around the world. Germany and the U.S. have been committed as nations to research and development in this field in recent years.

MOCHIZUKIConventional industrial equipment also has communication functions. However, as the respective communication systems are often based on proprietary standards, the machines cannot be connected to an information network as is. So we started our research five years ago to establish a system that would allow us to easily connect such devices to an information network. One of the results the research has produced is the "communication board for industrial equipment" that we present today. We have been engaged in the development of software for the board, while the board itself has been developed by the business division.

Why was the communication board selected?

MOCHIZUKIIn the single category of industrial equipment, there are a variety of product types. If we try to prepare a system for respective devices one by one, the costs would run up. Rather, we thought it would be better if we make a communication board and incorporate it into each machine.
The first equipment in which we incorporated the communication board was a controller called PLC, or Programmable Logic Controller. It was also incorporated into power monitoring devices and inkjet printers for industrial use. Among recently launched products, the board is embedded into an air compressor called the HISCREW NEXTII series, produced by Hitachi Industrial Equipment Systems Co., Ltd.

BONDANThis air compressor is fairly advanced. It has a color touch panel, which always displays the operational status of the device and various settings can be changed. Moreover, the device is compatible with not only the Ethernet but also Bluetooth communication standards. So you can confirm or change the equipment's settings using a tablet terminal.

Figure 1: Application examples of the communication board

It sounds smart to check the equipment in a plant through a tablet terminal in your hand.

MOCHIZUKIYou can say so. Five years ago, we couldn't imagine that we were going to see such a world. Both Bondan and I had been conducting research in areas other than infrastructure-related subjects. However, looking back, we are happy we were able to engage ourselves in this research theme.

Key factors for efficiently converting the protocols

What role does the communication board play?

BONDANThe communication board converts the protocols used by personal computers and tablet terminals for communication (the TCP communication protocols such as HTTP) to the communication protocols that have already been incorporated in the respective equipment (legacy communication protocols). Of course it also does the other way around. It plays the role of a gateway, so to speak.

MOCHIZUKISome of the machines currently operating in plants are rather aged—say, 10 or 20 years old. We cannot modify such old equipment. So we have the communication board convert the protocols into the "languages" that old machines can understand.

Figure 2: Role of the communication board

It sounds as if the board is a translator. How does the board make the conversions?

BONDANProtocols have their own rules to follow, and the same content to be communicated may be expressed differently depending on the protocols. Therefore, the communication board analyzes the composition of the messages sent from personal computers or tablet terminals and reconstructs the composition in a way that is understood by the equipment.

MOCHIZUKIThere are two key factors that matter when the communication board rewrites the messages. One is the "tag." Because the composition of messages is often described by using "tags," the board checks these "tags" to perform the conversion processing.

The other one is the "correspondence list." Legacy communication protocols specify the memory addresses of the devices to communicate with them. So we have prepared a "correspondence list" of memory addresses to allow efficient conversions by the board. The descriptions of the "correspondence list" can be changed flexibly according to the devices. With these arrangements, the board can perform conversion of a variety of protocols.

Has anything else been contrived besides dexterously utilizing the characteristics of communications?

BONDANWe have elaborated on how to balance the load of the board when multiple communication tasks arise simultaneously.

In fact, the communication board incorporated in the air compressor also helps communications within the equipment. There are two types of serial connections used for communications within the air compressor. One is called RS485, which is the serial connection used for communications with a board that controls the engine. The other one is RS232C, the serial connection used for communications with the touch panel.

Because each serial connections use different protocols, the "board that controls the engine" and the "touch panel" cannot communicate directly with each other. So the communication board serves as the go-between for their communications, just like what it does for communications with personal computers or tablet terminals.
Therefore, if communications with personal computers or tablet terminals take place just when there happen to be frequent communications occurring between the "board that controls the engine" and the "touch panel," the communication load becomes so heavy for the board that it appears to have stopped processing.

Actual prototype propel development

How do you avoid reaching the limit of the volume of work the board can perform at a time?

BONDANWe adjust the processing priorities. Because the touch panel must always display the operation status of the air compressor, communications between the "board that controls the engine" and the "touch panel" must always be maintained. If the communication load is large, we arrange so that priority is placed on the display of the touch panel and the processing of communications with personal computers or tablet terminals is conducted more slowly—of course, up to a degree that is acceptable by the users of the personal computers or tablet terminals.

MOCHIZUKIWe also adjust the processing unit, as we consider whether processing is conducted entirely at one time or little by little in a sequential manner. For example, the volume of data transmitted for screen displays of the touch panel is so huge that processing is conducted by dividing the data into certain sections. We made experiments to determine the data size that is most efficient without affecting other communications.

It appears that even minute details needed to be considered. What were the reactions received from the business divisions?

Photo: MOCHIZUKI Yoshinori

MOCHIZUKIReactions were not sufficiently good when the research was initially launched. People looked on with doubt, wondering if the technology was "really usable."
I guess it was after the prototype was completed that sentiment made a turn for the better. People actually saw the equipment operated from a tablet terminal and probably thought, "Yes, this is useful!"

BONDANFrom this experience we learned that, we had to create something and show it to explain the functions. I got the impression that showing the actual prototype enabled our achievement to be understood smoothly, as it showed people that "this is it."

MOCHIZUKIAs people understood the prototype, they started to give us requests for additional functions one after another. Such requests included the "function to collect and obtain the logs of operation data" and the "function to update firmware." In the end, the number of functions increased to nearly twice what was initially planned. Presumably, connecting the devices to the information network was not enough to fully satisfy the business division people.

BONDANAs the "hardware" portion had been completed earlier, its resources for processing were limited. Therefore, we faced the big challenge of how to meet the requests we received. In order to construct the software in a way in which it is applicable not only to a single, specific device but also other devices, we had to clearly divide the "common portion" and the "device-specific portion." It was not a matter of simply adding functions. That was another challenge for us to tackle.

How did you separate the "common portion" and the "device-specific portion?"

MOCHIZUKIWe first made rough classifications of functions with reference to the use cases of respective devices. Then we showed the actually developed prototype to the business division people. As we listened to what they had to say, we worked to determine more details. For example, a certain function can be used this way for the device A and that way for the device B. According to our judgment, functions that could be used commonly by different devices were classified as the "common portion," and the other functions were classified as the "device-specific portion."

Normally, we would have started development after dividing the functions into the "common portion" and the "device-specific portion." As a matter of fact, we placed priority on development. Once we successfully found out about advanced use cases, we would focus ourselves on them and create the real thing that works. This may have been rather irregular as a method to create things. However, we were conscious of grasping the needs at an early stage. We believe this approach generated a synergy effect and led to realization of a good product.

Not just words, but create a specific vision

Are there any other things you can tell us from reflecting back on the research?

Photo: BONDAN Setiawan

BONDANWhat was most pleasing to me was that we were able to create a product that can be used by a variety of people.
The pamphlet of the air compressor clearly explains the functions that we have developed. This gives me assurance and self-confidence for whatever I work on next.

MOCHIZUKIThe other day we had an opportunity to show the communication board to people outside the company, and we received positive feedback from them. Some of them had similar problems as us, and others gave us requests that had not come to mind. We felt how strong the needs are. Looking ahead, I will be happy to use the communication board as the base and create systems that can provide value to our customers.
I say this because I feel that, while various key words like Industrie 4.0, IoT and efficiency enhancement are being created, such words alone are ahead of the times without substance.

Do you mean that you want to make more specific proposals than you have done to date?

MOCHIZUKIYou are right. As a researcher, I must be able to clearly tell our customers that "this product can give you such-and-such value." That's what I feel, and believe that this is a theme common to any research section.
For this reason, I wish I can find out what we can provide to our customers as solutions while listening to what they need.

BONDANAs I said at the beginning of this interview, I hope to contribute to the "fusion" of industry and information. Although the target areas are not yet clearly defined, I want to propose efficient control methods—for industrial equipment, for control systems or whatever. I feel that that something great will happen if the entire world is connected by the information network.

*
Bluetooth is a registered trademark of Bluetooth SIG, Inc.
*
Ethernet is a trademark of Xerox Corporation.

Notification

  • Publication: October 13, 2015
  • Professional affiliation and official position are at the time of publication.
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