First rule of engineering; beware prototypes.  Along with, avoid anything made by an engineer who doesn’t have all his own fingers.”   Simon R. Green

From The Inside: A closer look at the CONNECT 

By Tim Clark, President and an Engineer

We all love gadgets and tools. When you are an engineer at heart, you want to fiddle with something. You want to solve a problem by either breaking it down to determine the cause or by designing a tool to fix the issue. At DECIDE4ACTION, this is one of my roles… solving problems. I have been doing it for over 25 years and mostly in the realm of software.

Clients come to us seeking a solution to a problem, or really asking “Can we do this?” or “How can we do this?” We deliver simple, cost-effective solutions that address the priority issues or problems. We help manufacturers capture data and monitor operations, processes and equipment, and have been doing it from before Windows was released and years before the Internet went public.

And this is the approach I have for sharing more details about our solutions. Engineers like details. They may not always read instructions, but they want the details and the reasons for “why” when evaluating technology and hardware.

This post is first in a series of offering more technical and design insights about our process improvement tools such as production monitoring, lab information management, quality control, quality assurance, and compliance management. What follows is an insider’s view of our CONNECT solution, an easily deployable device that allows you to interface with any equipment so that it can quickly become part of the supervised pool of monitored equipment.

SUMMARY: WHY BUY AND WHY IMPLEMENT

Let’s answer the main question: “Why buy and/or why implement this device.” From my perspective, if I am a plant manager, I would choose The CONNECT devices for two main reasons: Design and Flexibility.

DESIGN

We built the CONNECT to be a low-cost solution for capturing and monitoring machines. And we put a lot of thought into the design of the actual device in terms of real-world use. Engineers and operators will quickly notice the “ease of use”. Connecting sensors will be much easier than expected. We have dual-row headers with quick connect terminal blocks and dedicated terminals for powering sensors.

The CONNECT was designed around the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3, a long term support version of the popular Raspberry Pi single board computer that is now the most popular computing platform for IOT development with over 12.5 million board sold over the past 5 years. The Compute Module provides that base architecture of the normal Pi in a flexible form factor intended for industrial applications.

Typically, digital signals associated with industrial sensors will destroy a Raspberry Pi device without proper signal conditioning. We recognized that so we made sure that both the digital inputs and outputs were protected for DC signals up to 30 VDC.

FLEXIBILITY

The CONNECT services both digital and analog IO. It can connect to a serial device that has an RS-232 interface. Basically, it can play with just about any device and can communicate by just about any method: Wired 10/100 Ethernet, Wireless Ethernet, Bluetooth, and even LoRa.

We put Raspberry Pi into an industrial device to create a data monitoring unit that can be customized and utilized by the users and developers of an organization. The was to avoid creating a restriction to leveraging its power and functionality. We wanted to create a gateway so that innovation and advancement can be fostered.

THE RIGHT CHOICE 

This the right device for any size manufacturer looking for a cost-effective, advanced machine monitoring and data capture solution. This device accurately captures and analyzes data and does not require the capital expense of equipment upgrades or monstrous software purchasing. Everything runs within this embedded device and it starts collecting and analyzing data as soon as it is connected to the machine. Download the PDF.

MORE ABOUT THE CONNECT by DECIDE4ACTION

This industrial-grade device provides the reliability of a PLC and the flexibility of a PC-based device in a platform rugged enough for the factory floor and powerful enough for any supervisory management needs. And it does much more than just connect to a sensor or a machine. The CONNECT provides what is available in a desktop computer: a full-blown standard operating system, GUI, complete networking capabilities, webserver facilities, file transfer and the ability to host relational databases on the module itself. Plus, the CONNECT features Linux OS and Raspberry Pi technology with its worldwide community of support.

We designed this device based around a few simple principles:

  1. Provide expanded industrial-grade IO and communication capabilities
  2. Maximize its resourcefulness
  3. Make it easy to install, deploy and maintain
  4. Make it easy to use
Expanded IO and Communication Capabilities

The CONNECT features HDMI, 10/100 Wired Ethernet, 802.11 Wireless, an IoT LoRa Alliance Network Interface, 4 USB Ports, 4 Digital Outputs, 4 Digital Inputs and 2 Analog Inputs. The system is powered by a single 24 VDC power adapter. A far cry above what is typically supplied by competing OEE type monitoring devices, and even above what is expected at a minimum, the CONNECT integrates with a variety of types of equipment.

Previous software and communication capabilities associated with earlier generation microprocessor-based systems were restrictive because of small amounts of memory and no real OS. Communications were restricted to seral connections like the RS232 or RS435 or perhaps Ethernet which was limited to 10 Mbps. All of it was very slow until modern wired Ethernet and wireless technologies became widespread.

Inputs and Outputs

Compared to similar devices used by other OEE systems suppliers, we expanded from the typical two digital inputs and outputs to four each. The purpose is we wanted the CONNECT to be able to directly interact with operator alert devices such as stack lights. As well, the CONNECT has the capability to directly interact with more than one sensor or machine at a time, i.e. vibration and temperature sensors, production and reject counters, filler and capping machines, etc.

The four USB ports allow the CONNECT to more easily collect the data and distribute that data to other solutions. It can support several USB-connected devices either directly or via USB-adapters. This makes it even easier to connect the Lab to the production line. With lab and testing equipment such as scales, torque meters, etc., data collection is no longer limited by RS232 ports. Some of the more modern equipment is at now offering Ethernet or direct USB connections.

Communications

Featuring multiple options to connect to networks or direct to the Internet, the CONNECT eliminated the need to run expensive networking CAT-5/6 lines to every device. With wired, wireless and Bluetooth capabilities, this device can more easily share and transfer captured data either direct to the Internet or across internal, shorter range ad-hoc networks without offering exposure to the public Internet. Also, the CONNECT is forward-thinking by being compatible with IoT LoRa Alliance network. The LoRa Alliance the Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) IoT through the development and promotion of the LoRaWAN open standard.

Maximize the Resourcefulness

Typically, we use I/O to monitor the state of devices, i.e. switches, proximity sensors, etc. In the past, if you were logging and analyzing data, you had had flat text files or CSV files. You had to send those somewhere else in order to extrapolate any sense from the numbers.

We built the CONNECT to be more solid and less expensive when compared to small form factor PCs running on Windows. The devices will sit on the network and receive data direct from the machine. And with today’s SQL databases, we have the ability to quickly utilize familiar technology to not only capture data, but also analyze that data and begin to derive information from the analysis. By connecting directly to a machine, The CONNECT removes the need for keyboards and monitors. Plus, with the HDMI output, the device can be directly connected to large LCD displays to be used for digital signage and operator feedback. Feedback is not only instant, but immediately visible.

For the CONNECT, our approach was simple. We start with an off-the-shelf Raspberry Pi based compute module. Everything related to processor, memory, storage, etc. is on a module with same form factor as a stick of memory. Just plug it into the mating card. This means, it is a very cost-effective, “off the shelf” type of device.

Plus, we addressed the biggest concern: limited memory. The Compute Module 3 is now available with 1 GB RAM and 8, 16 or 32 GB of EMMC flash storage. When you run Headless Linux distribution, 4 GB of memory is plenty. However, when you want to utilize a GUI or support databases and other OS add-on systems, then memory can become a problem. To gain and leverage on-line operator feedback, expanded memory availability was critical.

Additional Features

The definition of resourceful is having the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties. With the CONNECT, we looked at what other problems might arise and sought to build a device that alleviated and avoided issues via the following features

  • Customizable – The CONNECT is adaptable and flexible for just about any use case. For example, it is easily customizable for time-period for sampling data. The device can also be configured to match unique situations due to the variety of connections such as WiFi, Bluetooth, LoRa, and the digital, analog, and USB inputs. Plus, by using Raspberry Pi and its vast community of support, organizations with their own development teams will be able to create their own applications and integrations to best suit their needs.
  • Programming Support – We are asked to work with all sorts of devices and machines, each featuring different interaction and connection capabilities. This is why we support a multitude of programming languages: C/C++, Python, HTML, CSS, Javascript and more.
  • Power – Our device includes a single 24-Volt DC power supply. This means that it is like a power adapter of tablet. The current version requires that power needs to be locally available in order for the device to be active. The device can also be supplied in a water-proof enclosure for location in wet or wash down areas.
  • Status Knowledge – We included three status LEDs to make it easy for anyone to know if the machine is active and functioning. The status lights reveal if power is on at the unit, if the application is running, and if device is connected to the Cloud or Web. No keypad displays are needed to see the health status of the machine.
  • Internal Real-Time Clock – The CONNECT has a battery backed real-time clock to maintain the correct date and time during power outages.
  • Expansion Capabilities – Our plan is to incorporate other advanced technologies and software. For example, we have a partnership with Cartesiam’s NanoEdge Artificial Intelligence technology. This places A.I. at the edge and allows for machine learning on its own versus first giving it a set of rules. With The CONNECT, the device will be at the edge, i.e. connected directly to a machine or sensor, and the A.I. algorithm will also be at the edge. This allows for more streamlined capturing and analysis of data to produce real-time intelligence.
Easy to Install, Deploy and Maintain

Everyone wants a comprehensive production monitoring solution like SCADA for their operations. However, most facilities incorporate a vast array of machines along production lines, i.e. smart machines or machines with digital displays and connections, as well as analog machines or equipment with no built-in way to communicate with outside world.  No matter the type or age of the machines, we can place a CONNECT device and include some of our sensors, if necessary, and immediately begin collecting data for that machine. Once that is in place, that machine is included in the SCADA line up and complete monitoring of a production line exists.

Simpler Wiring

We designed the device to be quickly installed and to avoid the standard challenges. Facility engineers typically struggle with getting the wiring connected. The CONNECT features Phoenix connectors, single screw terminals which provide quick connections. We also provide connection points at the inputs and they also have power connections and ground connections. This makes for very clean wiring installation. It also lends itself to ease of maintenance. For example, replacing the box is easy if it is damaged

Cloud, SaaS or On-Premise

The design of the CONNECT allows DECIDE4ACTION to offer various deployments. Facilities can choose either Cloud, SaaS, or on-premise deployments. The device itself hosts the data it collects and the application to analyze captured and collected data. That data is hosted and backed up to either the DECIDE4ACTION cloud or to a client specific location. The device also has the ability to run the system using a local database to act as a data buffer in case connections to the cloud are spotty. Clients have the ability to customize the configuration and sync schedule to the cloud.

Raspberry Pi

One of the biggest advantages of the CONNECT is that it is built around Raspberry Pi. This allows DECIDE4ACTION to provide lower cost of hardware, as well as adaptability and flexibility. Raspberry Pi delivers benefits such as a huge community of support which helps as technologies and integrations change. The CONNECT device also leverages other Raspberry Pi benefits:

  • Small Size – this computer is tiny which helps the CONNECT minimize its footprint
  • GPIO pins – this allows CONNECT to interface with real-world devices, electronics, sensors, machines, etc.
  • Energy Efficient – this can run 24/7 because it requires very little electricity
Easy to Use

The CONNECT is extremely simple to use. From an internal IT department standpoint, the concerns are only access to power and the Internet via WiFi or Ethernet. Once it is in place, connected to the machine or machines, and registered on the DECIDE4ACTION platform, the device starts capturing data.

Organizations can mount it in a headless fashion with no user interface. An organization does have the capability to host a local webserver which would then allow employees and operators to walk up to the device and connect to the webserver via either WiFi or Bluetooth. No digital interface is needed because operators can use their configured tablets or mobile phones to view the data and information. The CONNECT’s HDMI port allows direct connection to a display monitor. Captured and collected data becomes real-time feedback to be shared across the factory-floor and production teams.

With the direct analog and digital inputs, the device can connect directly to equipment like vibration and temperature sensors. The machine connects directly to the boards and a set of stack lights can be connected. Operator alerts will occur direct from the device with no need for keyboards or monitors.

Download The CONNECT PDF.