Linux in Manufacturing: Building Linux up

Kaiser Aluminum uses Linux on the factory floor. Will other manufacturing firms follow suit?

"Since much of Kaiser Aluminum's plant already used Unix, incorporating Linux was simple. "
Kaiser Aluminum's fabrication plant in Spokane, Wash., is 58-years old. But that doesn't mean the plant, which is owned by the $3 billion manufacturing giant, is relying on outdated information technology. Kaiser's plant is running a good portion of its manufacturing functions on Linux, using the open source operating system to roll 43,000-pound aluminum ingots into sheets of metal that will ultimately be turned into things like airplane wings or soda cans.

While Linux has become commonplace for Web servers, it's still a rare sight in the manufacturing world. But with Kaiser and a few other companies leading the way, vendors and software makers that support the manufacturing industry are slowly porting their applications to the open source operating system.

Tom Cook, manager of manufacturing systems at the Kaiser plant, said he decided to use Linux in the manufacturing process when Kaiser reengineered its computing architecture several years ago. He and the programmers and engineers who work with him first designed their requirements. Then they found the solutions to meet those requirements. Linux was one. Kaiser is also running Unix, Windows NT, and specialized real-time control systems in various parts of the rolling mill operation.

There are more than 20 Linux systems in the plant's production environment, Cook said. They track quality control, manage machines, monitor the production process, and produce quality reports.

Kaiser is also using Linux to run Oracle database software that tracks chemistry at the mill. In addition, many of Kaiser's manufacturing systems engineers are running Linux on their workstations and Kaiser uses Linux servers for sharing files. The company is using Linux boxes from Interlogic Industries Inc., and VA Linux Systems Inc.

Since much of the plant already used Unix, Cook said, incorporating Linux was simple. "When Linux started to emerge it brought that kind of functionality practically to everyone for no cost," he said. "It became an ideal training environment. As the product matured it began to demonstrate it was reliable and functional, and the cost of ownership was advantageous for us."

Cook also likes the fact that Linux runs on older machines, allowing the mill to extend the lifetime of some of its hardware. Cook, who has been with Kaiser since 1980, said he favors the open source solution because it allows him to rely less on vendors with proprietary software. And now that Linux is growing in popularity, more vendors are offering Linux solutions. "It was a natural extension of the multi-user, multi-processing environment. Now there's an enormous interest in all of the vendors making their products available, which as a user can only be an advantage," Cook said.

Increased interest in Linux

It is not easy to find manufacturers that are using Linux on the manufacturing floor -- or at least those that are willing to talk about it. But more and more software vendors that serve the manufacturing industry are porting their products to Linux. Integrated Business Systems & Services Inc. (IBSS), for example, this year certified its Synapse Manufacturing system for Linux. IBSS offers a fully configurable manufacturing system that includes full plant automation, production control, tracking, and order fulfillment.

"We're seeing an increased interest from our customers in Linux," said chief executive Harry Langley. "Linux is growing in market share. It is an excellent platform choice for midsize and large manufacturing companies because of its reliability enhanced performance, remote administration functionality, and cost effectiveness."

The small Columbia, S.C., company currently has three customers using its software. So far, none of them have requested the Linux version. But Don Futch, vice president of business development, said he thinks that will change once hardware manufacturers offer increased Linux support. Linux may also gain ground if Microsoft fails to deliver its Windows 2000 enterprise version on time, he added.

MSC.Software Corp., whose customers include the world's largest aerospace and car manufacturers, is another vendor that has ported its software to Linux. The Los Angeles company currently offers a software package for Linux on Hewlett-Packard hardware, and soon will offer one with NEC. Clark would not disclose which customers were using MSC's Linux version, but said it was fewer than a dozen.

Like IBSS, MSC.Software introduced its Linux version because it is cheaper for companies than comparable Unix versions, said Jay Clark, director of business development. "Any extreme performance simulation will require substantial horsepower, where the price-performance benefits of Linux will be huge," Clark said. "A lot of those companies are still in the Unix realm and Linux is a great cost of ownership choice for those companies."

Linux: a secret advantage?

Some companies are so convinced that Linux can be used successfully in the manufacturing space that their entire business model is focused on that area. One of them is Lineo Inc., a Lindon, Utah, company that develops embedded Linux and real-time Linux software.

Dave Beal, product marketing manager for real-time solutions at Lineo, said the company's Real-Time Linux software is being used in small milling machines and computer numeric control machines.

Beal also would not disclose specific customers, saying some of those that are using Linux see it as an advantage they don't want to share with competitors. They also don't want to alienate the vendors of proprietary systems. "Embedded Linux is still gaining momentum and as such it doesn't yet have global marketshare because of the prevalence of the proprietary systems," he said. "The acceptability among engineers is coming up quickly, but there's a lot of inertia to overcome because of those proprietary vendors who have been there for a lot of years."

Beal said companies will begin moving away from proprietary software now as product cycles end. "The timing is very good now. Proprietary systems on hardware have a 10 to 15 year lifespan and there are a lot of vendors coming to the end of that lifespan. The timing is good for (customers) to be looking around for alternative solutions."

While few manufacturing firms have yet to embrace Linux, those that have say the choice is a good one. "Having done it, we're quite pleased," said Kaiser's Cook.

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