Web-enabled remote monitoring is here
Joe Nicholson, Product Development Manager at Dexdyne Ltd looks back at his time in the water industry and explains the reasons behind the development of NetrixTM, and its potential across all industry sectors.
It can be argued that the water industry, like many other utilities, has been somewhat reticent in embracing new technologies outside of its core product expertise. Yet, with the continuous demand for greater efficiencies at lower costs, change over the years has been inevitable. Even so, communication within, and between, remote sites has remained dated.
Always striving for a more straightforward, more productive and cost effective way of doing things, seven years ago, as Software Development Manager at Severn Trent Services, formally Capital Controls Limited, Nicholson began work to enable sites to communicate more effectively both internally and externally.
Spurred on by the water industry's inability to establish which of the eight Fieldbus standards would be most appropriate, and the prospect of analogue and telemetry remaining the only solution, Nicholson looked at a number of alternative standards.
A first in the industry
In 1995 the potential of the Internet was being realised. Using open standards, it was accessible to anyone and everyone and provided Nicholson with the opportunity he needed to pioneer the first Internet technology remote communications project.
Following extensive research and development, the Aztec on-line project was launched in 2001. Led and headed by Nicholson at Severn Trent Services, it involved the creation and porting of an embedded web server and embedded TCP/IP stacks that would enable engineers to view instruments online. The first product of its kind in the water industry, the ability to interrogate instruments remotely in this way was nothing short of revolutionary.
Even so, the project had its own limitations, as Nicholson explains, 'viewing instruments online was a huge leap forward but at that stage it was not possible for an engineer to view a number of instruments, in different locations, at the same time. Each instrument had to be accessed individually.'
Owning many water companies in North America, Severn Trent Water had numerous reasons to develop this form of remote access technology further - many of which were confirmed when a colleague of Nicholson's, based in the UK, was called to a site in Canada to sort out a problem that was actually solved by simply 'flicking a switch'.
'At the that time the water industry was already moving away from manned sites,' explains Nicholson. 'With netrixTM that move becomes much easier. Skilled engineers can view numerous sites in their entirety, as well manipulate and interrogate the instruments and data.'
netrixTM can now be installed and configured in a matter of hours, using intuitive drag-and-drop tools, with the installer requiring very little IT knowledge. As soon as it is up and running, unattended plant and equipment can be accessed from any location using a PC, PDA or other terminal that runs a web browser - including wireless devices.
Mimic diagrams and control panels showing the remote installation can be viewed and, if appropriate, controls can be manipulated remotely. Alarms can be programmed to send SMS messages to mobile phones or emails to PDAs or PCs whenever an exception occurs. netrixTM also manages data acquisition and data logging, and can display data trends such as tank levels graphically and in real time, if required. All communications are secured using SSL and passwords, ensuring that access is only available to authorised users.
The netrixTM approach to remote access brings enormous benefits - improved responsiveness, better productivity and elimination of unnecessary service calls to name a few. Operators of plant and equipment can now monitor their systems from wherever they are.
'Though initially developed out of frustrations with the pace of development in the water industry,' continues Nicholson, 'The potential of netrixTM is limitless. It is no longer a product designed specifically for the water industry as it can be used by anyone who needs to monitor and control numerous or remote sites.'
Since its launch netrixTM has been installed at many different industry locations including a hydroelectric power station, the UK's Royal Surrey Hospital to monitor boiler levels and at Severn Trent Water, monitoring the effectiveness of a new instrument.
'The development of netrixTM has come a long way, although there are still many avenues I would like to explore,' adds Nicholson. Already optimised for wireless communication working over GSM/GPRS networks, netrixTM greatly simplifies the task of, and reduces the cost of, installation.
Netrix is an innovative system for providing remote access to industrial plant and equipment over the internet and using wireless links. Launched by Dexdyne earlier in 2004, following several years of development, netrix is much simpler to deploy and use than traditional methods; it is also much less expensive.
It has applications in most businesses and organisations which have remote or unattended plant, such as the water utilities, renewable energy generation, facilities management, etc. netrix's comprehensive feature set makes it the ideal solution for many remote access applications in operations management, service and maintenance, asset management, and in supply chain management.