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Project Success Stories - Enterprise logic gets an industry makeover

European research helps industry to bridge the divide between what happens in the physical world and its representation in the digital world. The result is a collaborative process which marries wireless sensor technology with the emerging 'web of things' and sensors to make business and now industrial processes more accurate, reliable and cost-effective.
Project Success Stories - Enterprise logic gets an industry makeover
With information and communication exchange as the core 'business' of white collar workers worldwide, the office environment has spawned many IT innovations like distributed enterprise systems and internet-based applications and services. But with its complex and often critical systems, the manufacturing industry has been a late adopter.

Researchers saw an opportunity back in 2004 to marry business logic with the emerging internet of things - networked embedded systems wirelessly monitoring and sensing physical items. This marriage resulted in so-called 'Collaborative Business Items' (CoBIs), smart entities like goods, equipment, parts and even shelves actively communicating with each other and a back-end system.

The central concept of the 30-month CoBIs project was to manage business processes at the 'point of action' rather than as centralised systems. That way processes become more accurate, reliable, cost-effective and responsive to industry needs.

To achieve this, CoBIs researchers used a common service paradigm throughout all layers, from the enterprise application down to the logic executed on sensor nodes. Middleware was built based on service-oriented architecture (SOA) - flexible design principles used in systems development and integration - which allows the deployment of business logic in the form of services to the edge of the network. In other words, the system is better able to do whatever is needed without major intervention on the development side, which makes it a scalable and practical tool for fast-changing modern IT scenarios.

CoBIs focused on providing the basic SOA framework as well as the tools to monitor and manage the network. Using a SOA in the context of distributed embedded devices, as well as sensor and actuator networks, solves several problems usually associated with such systems; namely the integration of sensors and actuators with enterprise systems as well as the management, monitoring and administration of a system with highly distributed logic.

'When we started the idea was a bit ahead of its time,' says CoBIs project coordinator Stephan Haller, development architect at SAP Research in Switzerland. 'Now, the SOA approach is more common as we see the "web of things" becoming a reality.'

Scenario revealed

Several application scenarios relevant to industry were identified and their real-world credentials were assessed in trials, including an automated system for monitoring chemical storage facilities and a smart shelf using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in the clothing industry.

In addition to the SOA framework, a set of reusable collaborative services was defined and described in a newly developed service description language called CoBIL. A CoBIL service description includes a WSDL-based definition of the interface, a textual description of the service, as well as information about the composition of the service and technical constraints for its deployment.

Three different sensor network platforms, called Particles, uNodes and Sindrion, were integrated with the middleware through a common abstraction layer. The different platforms have different characteristics; depending on the application scenario, according to the project.

'You just have to choose the most suitable technology for your needs,' says Mr Haller. 'And we even developed criteria that help end-users to make that choice, also comparing it to existing technology like RFID and wired sensors.'

On the layer of the sensor network itself, significant advancements were made: improved energy efficiency, a reliable data dissemination protocol, and facilitated node programming help to make the introduction of wireless sensor network technology to industrial applications much easier, explains the project coordinator.

Time to percolate

The CoBIs team knew from the outset that their work might take some time to percolate through to industry. So project partners TECO - Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) - and SAP Research created a spin-off, called Particle Computer, to deliver customised solutions based on wireless sensor network technology.

The potential of the technology was demonstrated during one of the CoBIs trials. Around 50 'particles', which are smart tags that act as network nodes, were attached to drums containing chemicals in a BP refinery in Hull (UK). The nodes were programmed with information about the substance being stored and relevant regulations or rules regarding its safe handling, such as storage limits and proximities.

The scenario: two drums containing incompatible chemicals are mistakenly stored in the same depot or in the same vicinity. CoBIs technology detects this and sets off an alarm which alerts depot attendants that they have to move the offending drum and resolve the issue at the point of action. This incident is also reported in the back-end system.

Particle Computer won several prizes for its groundbreaking technology, including an award by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology as a flagship project from the High Tech Gründerfonds. The venture was later sold to a larger concern which no longer provides the particles. TECO, however, continues to use the platform developed as part of the project.

Paying off

The CoBIs project may have been ahead of its time commercially, but its efforts are still paying off. The research team extended the SOA concept to the device and entity level in real-world industrial settings. They managed to integrate wireless sensor network technology seamlessly with enterprise systems, and they made hardware and some lower-level software improvements to meet exacting real-world conditions in today's industrial settings. And they extended business process to the 'point of action', an avenue that is being further explored in the IoT-A (http://www.iot-a.eu) project, which includes CoBIs partners.

'CoBIs was very interesting to work on - technology wise and in real-world applications like the BP trial,' notes Mr Haller. 'It has been quoted or referenced quite often since ending a couple of years ago, and I still get people asking about it,' he tells CORDIS.

'Working in EU-supported projects like this is an opportunity to sit down with the best academic researchers in the field and other companies in a pre-competitive setting,' suggests the SAP researcher. 'It puts people together who might not otherwise have the opportunity,' he concludes.

The CoBIs project received some EUR 3 million (of a total EUR 4.7 million) in funding from the EU under the 'Information society technologies' (IST) scheme of the Sixth Framework Programme. CoBIs final results and helpful audiovisual demos can be found on the project website (http://www.cobis-online.de).

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