Tuesday, April 21, 2015

NFC as an Enabler for Efficient Asset Management

When it comes to managing assets in industrial environments there are a few use cases that come up frequently. And naturally also a few problems relating to each. In this post an asset can be pretty much any device that monitors or controls an industrial manufacturing process. Of course assets also exist in environments with moving machines and logistics; like harbor areas.

 When a service person is visiting a site (either during installation, as a routine check-up, or responding to a service request) the first thing to overcome is usually identifying the asset he or she wants to operate. For example there can be various injection moulding machines operating in a factory floor. The machines may be from different suppliers, of different generation/version, running different software and/or configurations, and so on.

 After the asset has been identified, it usually needs to be accessed to retrieve logs, adjust parameters and so on. For this purpose there are various local control panels. These often don’t have the most modern and easy-to-operate user interfaces. Also the panels may be physically located in a hard-to-reach place (e.g. behind a corner, between a machine and a wall, etc.).

 In some cases you can or even have to connect an external control device (like a laptop) to the asset to control, reconfigure or even reprogram it. This is traditionally done with a laptop and some kind of serial cable. In more modern solutions (like Ixonos Internet Suite) it may also be possible to do the connecting and configuration wirelessly e.g. with a tablet or other mobile device.

 To solve the issues above and make the service person’s work as efficient and ergonomic as possible, there are several ways where modern wireless technology can help. You could use RFID tags or barcodes to identify the assets and setting up the connectivity.

 We decided to take a closer look at NFC. By using simple, inexpensive passive NFC tags we were able to significantly speed up identifying, accessing and connecting to assets in the field.

 Check the video below for details and examples:

All-in-all NFC is a modern and reliable technology for improving the efficiency of service personnels work in the field. Of course this is only a small part of a comprehensive solution which requires lot of intelligent software solutions both on site and in the cloud. Check our previous blog posts and stay tuned for more relating to those.

Manish Kumar, Senior SW Engineer, Ixonos
Mikko Mäkinen, SW Engineer, Ixonos

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mesh networks for industrial internet

Industrial internet is mostly about collecting, analyzing and visualizing data to enable new use cases or to enhance operations. One of the challenges in getting industrial internet systems up and running is how to efficiently set up and manage networks consisting of dozens or even hundreds of sensors. Wirepas have developed an interesting wireless mesh network solution they call Pino™ to solve this issue.

To test the usability of the Wirepas mesh with our existing data collector, Sensor Hub, we added a Wirepas plugin to the Hub, and designed a set of simple sensor boards that measure temperature, absolute air pressure and battery voltage. The readings were then transferred via UART to a reference HW board developed by Nordic Semiconductor running Wirepas Pino™ stack. These boards automatically organized themselves to a mesh and relayed the data to a gateway, a simple USB dongle with a virtual serial port. Users were able to view data collected from the sensors locally, and the Hub also pushed the data to the cloud using either ethernet, WiFi or cellular network.

See video of the solution in use:

Wirepas Pino™ mesh is not aimed at low latency real-time data, but rather at giving possibility to easy deployment of very low power battery operated mesh network with zero configuration and minimal installation.

Just drop the wireless sensor nodes where needed and the mesh automatically configures itself. If the signal range has to be extended, simply drop another node on the way and it starts relaying the data.

Most of the time there are multiple routes through the mesh for relaying data. The sender can set preference for either low latency or energy. The mesh automatically optimizes routing based on the energy reserves available in the nodes, or by fastest route. If a node is low on battery, the mesh automatically starts avoiding that node to further save its battery.

In case of deploying large amount of nodes, it is possible to add more gateway nodes to distribute the traffic load and also to avoid single point of failure.

Based on our experience the Wirepas Pino™ does it's job in providing a wireless sensor network that is easy to set up and administer. This quite nicely complements Ixonos' solutions that focus on data collection, cloud storage, and visualization of data quite nicely.  We look forward to creating solutions for our Industrial customers using Wirepas technologies.

Teemu Rasi, Embedded Engineer, Ixonos Plc

Friday, January 16, 2015

Linux Flashing for Freescale i.MX6

We often have customer and R&D projects where we build embedded SW solutions on the Freescale i.MX6 platform. As our OS of choice usually is Linux, developing those solutions has been a bit problematic since Freescale's own tool for flashing (MFGTool) is only available for Windows. Our developers finally got bored of having a separate Windows -workstation for flashing the stuff they had developed on Linux. Therefore they decided to create a Linux tool for flashing to speed up the
development process.

The result of this work was a tool called utp_com which can be used with imx_usb to flash i.MX6 based hardware from Linux environment. As we are talking about Linux we also decided to make the tool publicly available.

Development started from point where we were able to flash "flashing OS" into the device with imx_usb tool. After this a SD card device (/dev/sd* ) is available from the target device to the host machine via an USB connection. The SD card device is not a conventional one, but communication is done with the SCSI commands. On top of them Freescale has defined an Update Transport Protocol ( UTP ) which is used for communication. UTP message data is sent in the vendor specific CDB field of the SCSI message. Return values come as part of the SCSI sense data.

Example commands how a file is copied to the target device and then written to a flash device below:

utp_com -d /dev/sdb -c "send" -f u-boot.bin
utp_com -d /dev/sdb -c "$ dd if=\$FILE of=/dev/mtd0 bs=512"

Code is under GNU GPL v2.0 license, and can be found from: http://github.com/ixonos/utp_com.

We hope you find it as useful as we do!

Teemu Piiroinen, SW Specialist, Ixonos Plc