Software

Software & Analysis: The Cloud Paradigm

September 7, 2012
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Bring distributed quality intelligence data from the shop floor to your quality management system.

When we watched Captain Kirk flip open his handheld communicator and talk to the crew of the Enterprise, how many of us ever considered that we would one day have our own handheld communicators that would enable us to reach out and connect across the globe? Could we ever have imagined that we would hold the power of instantaneous information in the palm of our hand? Though we may not have been able to conceive of these amazing innovations back then, let alone the global network that sustains them, the Internet, or the “Cloud” as it has come to be known, has revolutionized the way we access information and has changed the way we interact with our world.

Like Captain Kirk, we often need access to information as quickly as possible, but imagine if Kirk and his away party had to keep beaming back aboard the Enterprise to access data from an onboard computer every time they encountered a new alien life form. Ludicrous, right? But that is exactly what many of us are doing on a day-to-day basis. For decades now, the desktop PC has been considered an irreplaceable resource and, combined with a network of servers, has given us even more access to tools and services than ever before, and we have gained the ability to share information with other PCs in the network.

When the desktop PC was first introduced, it started a revolution of its own. For the first time, users had a powerful platform that was not dependent on a mainframe server and the consumer market boomed. Productivity, efficiency and access to information exploded and the workforce became more knowledgeable and effective in their roles. Unfortunately, the client/server relationship has some inherent flaws: it makes any one computer or server extremely important, and to a small or medium-sized business, the loss of either one can be devastating. The original value of these platforms has also been somewhat negated by the limited access to that information and computing power. The desktop PC has kept us chained to our desks and, combined with the great expense required to purchase equipment and pay a staff of technicians, is perhaps why so many organizations have begun to outsource not only their IT force, but their network infrastructure as well.

Outsourcing has led to revolutionary advances in Internet capabilities and data storage. The power of the cloud has been unleashed. While the cloud is largely considered to be just a buzzword for the Internet we already know so well, there are distinct differences. For example, the cloud makes it much easier for the average user to upload to and store content within the Internet. Needless to say, the cloud is everywhere and it has become such a part of our lives that many of us scarcely know when we are using it. There are hundreds of servers mirroring the information we seek and it doesn’t really matter what operating systems they are running or even how many miles away they are-we can access the information we need when we need it. In fact, that is the power of the Internet and why cloud computing has risen in popularity to a staggering degree.

The meteoric rise of the cloud, combined with multifaceted operating systems and ever-increasing security measures, has forced software companies to reevaluate how they distribute their software and how it will be utilized by the consumer. The complex operating system environments can be very challenging for smaller development shops which typically have fewer development resources. Many software companies find it difficult to keep up with larger entities like Microsoft and struggle to keep pace with new innovations. Some forward-thinking software vendors have been turning to the hosting model or Software as a Service (SaaS) because deploying their software in controlled, predictable installation environments is a tremendous advantage. Hosting software virtually removes troublesome compatibility issues and vendors can ensure that their software applications perform as designed.

The end-user advantage of these products is that a hosted system places the burden and expense of the network infrastructure, redundancy and security measures almost entirely on the vendor. The vendor can readily deliver all of the software features you need and you don’t have the stress of updating your operating systems or dealing with the compatibility issues that usually accompany a major software purchase. The hosted model virtually eliminates expensive annual maintenance costs typically associated with software purchases because the vendor is also responsible for maintaining the product and keeping it up to date. Additionally, most hosted solutions can be purchased or leased on a monthly basis, so you do not have to be concerned with upfront costs or budget restrictions; payments can be spread out over the life of the product.

Though many larger ERP and CRM manufacturing applications have long since made the hyper leap forward into the cloud, calibration software has been slow to make the transition. While there are a handful of companies currently offering calibration management software that can be run through a Web browser, there are only a few that actually provide desktop versions of their software in a SaaS or hosted offering. The most likely reason for this slow adoption is that it requires a dramatic shift in development resources, added expense to the vendor and, until very recently, too little market demand to justify it. Additionally, many end users of desktop calibration software have been reluctant to switch because poorly engineered Web-based software is often cumbersome and less than user-friendly. The market demand is shifting more dramatically now as manufacturing has been forced to seek a greater foothold in the global marketplace.

The use of calibration software within a typical organization is now more widely distributed than ever before and calibration data must be shared between facilities around the globe. Complicating matters further, many companies lack the network infrastructure to support their growing needs. Hosted calibration software easily resolves the global distribution challenge and makes it possible for end users to share gage and calibration data between facilities, outside calibration labs and customers. Moreover, for the short-staffed IT groups, hosted software applications are a welcome addition because they require little support, which frees them up for more important tasks.

In just a few decades, we have seen the rise and decline of the desktop PC and the client/server architecture, the ascension of the Internet and a mobile computing revolution. These amazing new technologies have paved the way for incredible innovations in communication, business computing and software development. It is a brave new world and we are on a mission to boldly go where no generation has gone before, to seek out new technologies and ... well, you get the idea. Kirk out. 

Tech Tips

Calibration data must be shared between facilities around the globe.

Hosted calibration software lets end users share gage and calibration data between facilities, outside calibration labs and customers.

These hosted software applications require little support, allowing IT staff to work on more important tasks.

The Road to Faster, Easier and More Accurate Analysis

Take a closer look at calibration management software. By Beamex

Every process manufacturing plant has some sort of system in place for managing instrument calibration operations and data. Plant instrumentation devices such as temperature sensors, pressure transducers and weighing instruments require regular calibration to ensure they are performing and measuring to specified tolerances.

However, different companies from a diverse range of industry sectors use very different methods of managing these calibrations. These methods differ greatly in terms of cost, quality, efficiency and accuracy of data and their level of automation.

For example, for improved safety, a process plant may find it necessary to increase the frequency of some sensors that are located in a hazardous, potentially explosive area of the manufacturing plant.

Just as important, by analyzing the calibration history of a flow meter that is located in a non-critical area of the plant, the company may be able to decrease the frequency of calibration, saving time and resources. Rather than rely on the manufacturer’s recommendation for calibration intervals, the plant may be able to extend these intervals by looking closely at historical trends provided by calibration management software. Instrument drift can be monitored closely over a period of time, allowing companies to then confidently make decisions with respect to amending the calibration interval.

Regardless of industry sector, there seems to be some general challenges that companies face when it comes to calibration management.

Paper-based systems

Any type of paper-based calibration system will be prone to human error. Noting down calibration results by hand in the field and then transferring these results into a spreadsheet back at the office may seem archaic, but many firms still do this. Furthermore, analysis of paper-based systems and spreadsheets can be almost impossible, let alone time-consuming.

In-house legacy system

Although certainly a step in the right direction, using an in-house legacy system to manage calibrations has its drawbacks. In these systems, calibration data is typically entered manually into a spreadsheet or database. The data is stored in electronic format, but the recording of calibration information is still time-consuming and typing errors are common. Also, the calibration process itself cannot be automated. For example, automatic alarms cannot be set up on instruments that are due for calibration.

Calibration Module

Many plants have already invested in a computerized maintenance management system and continue to use this for calibration management. Plant hierarchy and works orders can be stored in the computerized maintenance management system, but the calibration cannot be automated because the system is not able to communicate with smart calibrators. Many times, calibration management software can be easily integrated to this system. If the plant instruments are already defined on a database, the calibration management software can utilize the records available in the system database.

Furthermore, computerized maintenance management systems are not designed to manage calibrations and so often only provide the minimum calibration functionality, such as the scheduling of tasks and entry of calibration results. Although instrument data can be stored and managed efficiently in the plant’s database, the level of automation is still low. In addition, the system may not meet the regulatory requirements (such as FDA) for managing calibration records. The integration will save time, reduce costs and increase productivity by preventing unnecessary double effort and re-keying of work orders in multiple systems. Integration also enables the plant to automate its calibration management with smart calibrators, which simply is not possible with a standalone computerized maintenance management system.

Calibration Software

Calibration software is a tool that should be used to support and guide calibration management activities, with documentation being a critical part of this. Calibration software enables faster, easier and more accurate analysis of calibration records and identifying historical trends. Plants can therefore reduce costs and optimize calibration intervals by reducing calibration frequency when this is possible, or by increasing the frequency where necessary.

Using software-based calibration management systems in conjunction with documenting calibrators means that calibration results can be stored in the calibrator’s memory, then automatically uploaded back to the calibration software. Calibration instructions can be created using software to guide engineers through the calibration process. These instructions can also be downloaded to a technician’s handheld documenting calibrator while he is in the field. There is no re-keying of calibration results from a notebook to a database or spreadsheet. Human error is minimized and engineers are freed up to perform more strategic analysis or other important activities.

Importance of Documentation

Also, when a plant is being audited, calibration software can facilitate both the preparation and the audit itself. Locating records and verifying that the system works is effortless when compared to traditional calibration record keeping.

Regulatory organizations and standards such as FDA and ISO place demanding requirements on the recording of calibration data. Calibration software has many functions that help in meeting these requirements, such as change management, audit trail and electronic signature functions.

Meeting regulatory and audit requirements means an instrument engineer can spend as much as 50% of his or her time on documentation and paperwork, time that could be better spent on other value-added activities. This paperwork typically involves preparing calibration instructions to help field engineers; making notes of calibration results in the field; and documenting and archiving calibration data.

Imagine how long and difficult a task this is if the plant has thousands of instruments that require calibrating on at least a six-monthly basis? The amount of manual documentation increases almost exponentially.

When it comes to the volume of documentation required, different industry sectors have different requirements and regulations. In the power and energy sector, for example, just under a third of companies (with 500-plus employees) typically have more than 5,000 instruments that require calibrating. Forty-two percent of companies perform more than 2,000 calibrations each year.

In the highly regulated pharmaceuticals sector, a massive 75% of companies carry out more than 2,000 calibrations per year. The oil, gas and petrochemicals sector is similarly high, with 55% of companies performing more than 2,000 calibrations each year. The percentage is still quite high in the food and beverage sector, where 21% of firms said they calibrated their instruments more than 2,000 times every year. This equates to a huge amount of paperwork for any process plant.

The figures outlined appear to suggest that companies really do require some sort of software tool to help them manage their instrument calibration processes and all associated documentation.

Reduced Costs and Improved Efficiency

For the business, implementing software-based calibration management means overall costs will be reduced. These savings come from the now-paperless calibration process, with no manual documentation procedures.

Plant efficiencies should also improve, as the entire calibration process is now streamlined and automated. Manual procedures are replaced with automated, validated processes, which is particularly beneficial if the company is replacing a lot of labor-intensive calibration activities. Costly production downtime will also be reduced.


For more information on Beamex Inc. (Marietta, GA), call (800) 888-9892, e-mail beamex.inc@beamex.com or visit www.beamexc.com

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