What every plant engineer should know about selecting software

Because of features such as improved ease of use, web-enabled functionality, the ability to integrate applications across the enterprise, and much more, software is providing plant engineers with excellent assistance for everything from project management to stress analysis, and from CMMS to CAD.

By Jack Smith, Senior Editor, Plant Engineering Magazine December 15, 2001
Key concepts
Software applicable to plant engineers can be simple off-the-shelf packages or complex vendor-implemented solutions.
Software should be selected based on ease of use, implementation, support, and how well it fits your needs.
Virtually all software requires licensing.
Ease of use
Ease of implementation
System requirements
No surprises
PC vs. Mac
Types of software applicable to plant engineers

Because of features such as improved ease of use, web-enabled functionality, the ability to integrate applications across the enterprise, and much more, software is providing plant engineers with excellent assistance for everything from project management to stress analysis, and from CMMS to CAD. How useful the software is to your plant depends on how well you select the software. What do you need to know to make good software selections? Here are some suggestions.

Ease of use

Plant engineers face the challenges of keeping their facilities running and providing capacity for manufacturing. Software helps them do this by providing efficient and effective tools for doing more in less time and with less money. For that reason, software must be easy to use. No plant engineer needs a steep learning curve.

Depending on the type of software, training should be available. For off-the-shelf software products, help should be included on the CD-ROM provided for software installation or within an instruction manual. Also, customer service or technical support telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, or URLs should be included for those users who need assistance beyond included help files.

More complex software, such as CMMS/EAM, requires training provided by the software vendor. Training is usually performed onsite. Many times, actual company data are used for training and simulation purposes. With other scenarios, fake data are used. It is more beneficial to train with the actual data that will be used in day-to-day jobs.

Ease of implementation

Closely related to ease of use is ease of implementation. Most plants have an information technology (IT) department. However, some plant engineering departments install their own software, depending on the complexity. Regardless of who is responsible for software, it still must be installed and implemented. Usually, users can install off-the-shelf software themselves.

Fig. 1. To install off-the-shelf software, click the “Start” button to bring up the run dialog box. Click the “Browse…” button to access the CD-ROM, which is device D: on most PC-based computers. Click the “OK” button to place the path and filename of the software to be installed in the run dialog box. Click the “OK” button on the run dialog box to begin the installation process.

More complex software, such as CAD or EAM, requires installation and implementation by the software vendor or third-party implementers. During implementation, the focus should be on installing and testing. When installing the software, the vendor should test all aspects of the plant’s technical environment that interface with their software, especially if new hardware is required. This could include testing the network, remote sites, and internet (or intranet) connection and operation. Although the responsibility should be with the vendor, it is a good idea to have internal technical people involved with implementation so that plant personnel can learn their own system, as well as ensure accountability of the vendor.

Implementation also requires pilot testing and launching the software. This is where much of the debugging occurs. Problems that would hinder software operation when it is taken “live” should be resolved during pilot testing. When the software is launched, there should be nothing that would prevent it from providing efficient and effective solutions for your plant.


Typically, off-the-shelf software requires little support. Depending on the type of software, support could come in the form of periodic upgrades or new versions. Upgrading off-the-shelf software is usually accomplished by installing the new version. The installation startup program recognizes the current version and installs the appropriate files to make the upgrade. Typically, these upgrades require a purchase. However, prices for upgrades are usually much lower than for the full version of the software.

Sometimes software vendors find “bugs” in the version of software you have. When this happens, the vendor provides the corrected files or fixes free of charge.

As with training, technical support should be available from the software vendor. Sometimes this support is provided for a fee. However, this typically involves consumer-oriented users. Vendors of industrially-oriented software, such as analysis packages, typically do not charge for technical support.

For more complex systems, such as CMMS, there are three types of support. Application support includes the installation and inevitable upgrades. Most vendors issue product updates once a year. Whether upgrades are included in the purchase price should be negotiated up front and spelled out in the agreement.

Technical support is usually done inhouse after the software has been launched. It includes ensuring the software/system interfaces properly with other systems in the plant, such as networks or enterprise systems. It can also involve day- to-day tasks such as backups, database administration, system security, and other types of software system administration.

There should be someone inhouse, either from plant engineering or IT, who is knowledgeable about the software so that daily desktop support is available. This general application support includes further training, one-on-one support, and day-to-day “help desk” type problem solving.

System requirements

When selecting software, it is important to understand the type of system the software requires. Most off-the-shelf software applications that are intended to run on a desktop require a PC with specific hardware and/or software. These requirements usually include:

  • Processor type. Most off-the-shelf software released today requires some sort of Pentium-compatible microprocessor. There is usually a processor speed requirement associated with the processor type. Typical speed requirements are for processors that are 133 MHz or faster.

  • Memory. Software packages usually stipulate a minimum amount of random access memory (RAM) available on your system

  • Disk space. Since desktop applications (as opposed to networked applications) require a certain amount of minimum disk space, it is important to know if your system has enough available space within which to install the new software. To check available space, use Windows Explorer. Right-click on the C: drive (Fig. 2.). Select “Properties” from the popup menu that appears. Used space and free space are indicated on the dialog box that appears. If the free space indicated greatly exceeds the space required for the software to be installed, then you have plenty of space. It should be noted that if the numbers are close, installing the software would be possible, but perhaps not advisable. There should be some space allowed for temporary files and cache operations. Either free up some disk space or upgrade your computer to a larger hard drive.

  • Specific hardware configuration. Most software requires a CD-ROM reader for software installation. However, some software is still distributed on 3.5-in. floppy disk. Many computers have both. But it is a good idea to know what you have and what you need before you purchase the software. Printers are sometimes required. Other hardware that could be required includes barcode scanners and specialized hardware specific to the application.

  • Software or operating system. Virtually all PC-based computers use the Windows operating system. Computers running versions of Windows later than 3.11 operate under Windows. Prior to, and including 3.11, PCs operated on DOS, requiring Windows to operate through DOS as well. Most off-the-shelf software requires current Windows versions. However, some will allow earlier versions. A few programs still require DOS.

  • Application model. Will this be licensed software or applied through an application service provider (ASP) model? Licensed software requires hardware — computers, networks, clients, and/or servers. ASP software requires browsers on computers or thin clients. (Thin clients are limited-use computers for accessing networks.)

    • Fig. 2. To check your hard drive for available space in which to install new off-the-shelf software, right click on the C: drive in Windows Explorer. Click “Properties” on the menu that appears. The resulting dialogue box provides the used and available disk space.


      Whether off-the-shelf or complex installations, software must be documented. Documentation includes user manuals, license agreements, and/or technical information. It could also include program listings or source code.

      User manuals include instructions on how to operate the software as well as some training. Most of the time, the instruction manual amounts to definition, description, and examples for the commands and operations available.

      Training is a different story. Good documentation includes realistic scenarios that guide new users through examples that are intended to be applicable to their jobs. Although generic, providing real-world examples makes a giant leap beyond merely defining commands.

      Documentation is distributed several ways. The traditional method is to provide a printed copy of the manual. However, more and more companies are providing manuals on CD-ROM. This saves time, because users can access help or training with the click of a mouse instead of fumbling through bookcases, volumes, and pages to find answers to problems.

      The internet has made it possible to obtain help and training for licensed software users. Using the internet eliminates the need to keep track of books or CD-ROMs.

      Complex applications require more documentation. One issue you should consider is whether you will get source code. (Source code is the programming language behind the features you see and use on your computer.) In the case of SCADA/HMI software, source code from the software vendor usually amounts to development software. Typically, SCADA implementers are third-party value-added resellers (VARs). They develop the application, or runtime software, specific to your plant. Most of the time, application source code is provided, along with CAD drawings and operation manuals for your system.

      Many times documentation is a weak link. Documentation may not be provided until after the sale, especially for complex and unique applications. As a leveraging point, final payment should be withheld until complete and accurate documentation is provided. This arrangement should be stipulated up front.


      Virtually every type of software, whether professional or consumer, requires a license. On every copy of Microsoft Windows or Office, for example, there is a software license agreement that must be read and agreed to before the seal is broken. Opening the package implies that you accept and will comply with the terms of the license agreement. This is spelled out in the text of the agreement. License agreements such as this are typical for off-the-shelf software packages.

      What the legalese of the agreement amounts to is “one user equals one license.” This is typical across the board for both off-the-shelf software and distributed complex networked software. However, some vendors grant network or multiuser licenses for a negotiated fee. This multiuser agreement usually includes permission for multiple users up to an agreed-upon number. Enterprise-wide software also has stipulations that limit the number of users licensed to use the software and must be negotiated up front. Multiuser licenses are issued to companies for a specific number of people, rather than naming individual users.

      With an increasing number of thin clients appearing on plant floors, the new licensing rule of thumb is becoming “if it resides on a disk drive, it needs a license.” Pulling up a screen on multiple thin clients will not require a license for each thin client. However, it does require a license for each server on which the software resides.

      With SCADA/HMI software, licensing is a different story. Instead of seats or users, software is licensed according to the number of tags used in the application. This is where you must be careful to know what you are getting and what you have to pay for. Some vendors or implementers charge by all tags used, including internal and/or computational tags. The cost could be higher, but you generally get more tags for the buck. Other companies charge by blocks for only the I/O tags. For example, if you are charged a certain fee for a block of 256 tags, and you need 257, you might have to pay $1000 or more for that next block of 256 tags, although you need only one.

      No surprises

      One of the biggest surprises when it comes to implementing software is cost. If there is one thing you need to know before you actually begin, it is the “real” cost of the software. Many users are unpleasantly surprised by the bottom line. You should ask:

    • How is this software licensed?

    • What are the factors that affect the price?

    • Will I get source code?

    • Is source code included in the price?

    • How does implementation affect the price?

    • Is training included in the cost of the software?

    • Is technical support included in the price?

    • If required to “pay as you go,” how much does technical support after the sale cost?

      • It is important for your company to have full financial commitment to obtaining the software. Plants are often unpleasantly surprised when they discover they have failed to budget for every aspect of a project. To effectively budget for a complex enterprise-wide software project, it is important to understand:

      • Application costs. Will the software be leased or licensed?

      • Financial enabling. Is the project management team fully funded? Is it enabled and empowered to make financial decisions regarding software purchases and implementation?

      • Implementation. Are approved funds allocated for implementing the software?

      • Interfacing issues. Is funding for necessary modifications, customization, and interfacing accounted for?

        • A well qualified project management team can help minimize surprises. Educated consumers are well informed about every phase of the process. The team should be prepared for much of what the software selection and implementation holds — from the team members to the software users. One of the major tasks of the project management team is to obtain buy-in for the software project from the beginning. Failure to do this could ensure that the naysayers will have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

          A major software project should have buy-in from the top of the company downward through the team as well as the plant. Not having corporate buy-in can be as dangerous as not having user buy-in.

          Fig. 3. Facility and safety software is commonly a plant engineering responsibility. The program shown above is designed to oversee flame safeguard systems and communiate alarm messages quickly. Users can view flame safeguard system status, alarms and lockout history. (Courtesy Total Automation Concepts)

          Selecting and implementing software is a partnership that requires effort from both user and vendor. This effort entails:

        • Understanding that the old way of doing things is not necessarily the best way

        • Ensuring that the software does not completely disrupt your way of doing business

        • Understanding that maybe the software is a bad fit.

          • When selecting and implementing software, think about the following to ensure a good fit:

          • Does the software have the functionality you require?

          • Are there multiple plant sites?

          • Do you require the software to integrate with existing software?

            • The project management team should ensure that the project goals are well stated. You should have well-designed quantifiable goals in order to measure results.

              Useful software providers for plant engineers
              The following table is a sample of software providers in three categories — HVAC, instruments and control, and maintenance. For a thorough listing of software suppliers in these and many other categories, refer to the 2001/2002 Plant Engineering Product Supplier Guide (October 2001) or visit our electronic Product Supplier Guide at plantengineering.com.

              Software supplier URL HVAC Instruments and control Maintenance
              Advantech Automation Corporation advantech.com X
              Amatrol, Inc. amatrol.com X X X
              Cayenta, EAM Solutions mainsaver.com X
              CK Systems, Inc. cksystems.com X
              Coade Engineering Software coade.com X X
              Computational Systems, Inc (CSI) compsys.com X X X
              Datastream Systems, Inc. datastream.net X
              Desktop Innovations, Inc. mainboss.com X
              Eagle Technology eaglecmms.com X
              Eaton Cutler-Hammer cutlerhammer.com X
              eForay Corporation hvacindustry.com X X
              Entek entek.com X X
              Entivity, Inc. entivity.com X
              Expertune Inc. expertune.com X
              Factoryware, Inc. factoryware.com X
              Fluke Corp. fluke.com X
              Fluor Corp. tabware.com X
              Foxboro Co., The foxboro.com X
              Honeywell Loveland iac.honeywell.com/services/loveland X
              Iconics iconics.com X X X
              IFS North America, Inc. ifsna.com X
              Indus International indusinternational.com X
              Intelligent Instrumentation instrument.com X
              Ivara Corp. ivara.com X
              Johnson Controls, Inc. johnsoncontrols.com X
              Kruse Software kwise.com X
              MicroMain Corp. micromain.com X
              MPulse Maintenance Software mpulsecmms.com X X
              National Instruments Corp. ni.com X X X
              Omega Engineering, Inc. omega.com X
              ProfitKey International profitkey.com X X X
              PSDI MRO.com maximo.com X
              Rebis rebis.com X X X
              Reliability Center, Inc. reliability.com X
              Rockwell Software software.rockwell.com X X X
              Siemens Building Technologies, Inc. sbt.siemens.com X X
              Siemens E&A-Furnas Controls sea.siemens.com X
              Somax, Inc. somax.com X
              Syclo syclo.com X
              Synergen synergen.com X
              TMA Systems, Inc. tmasystems.com X
              Trane Co., The trane.com X
              Wonderware Corp. wonderware.com X
              Xycom Automation, Inc. xycom.comn X

              PC vs. Mac

              This article was written with a slant toward PC users, because the overwhelming majority of computers used in the industrial sector are PC-based. Apple Macintosh hardware and operating systems are different. Some applications are written for both. With the exception of specific hardware and operating system references, the advice contained in this article can be applied to software for Mac systems as well.

              Types of software applicable to plant engineers

              Plant engineers typically become involved in the specification and/or use of software applications in these areas:







              Fluid handling

              Fluid power



              Material handling