Innovation on the Brain

Gray Matter Systems celebrates 25 years of technology and software with a dedicated person-to-person approach.

By Tim Hayes, TEQ Magazine

Pittsburgh’s favorite neighbor, the late Fred Rogers, once said, “The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing…and they love it in front of others.”

It may sound cliche, and even a little obvious, but people make the real difference. Mister Rogers said so. And with the right tools, people can make good organization run even better– all the way to great. Respecting their intelligence and enthusiasm provides a key.

That’s the impetus behind the success of Gray Matter Systems, based in Warrendale, which offers technology, innovative software, and a dedicated person-to-person approach to help some of the world’s leading manufacturers and critical infrastructure operators enhance their performance in meaningful measure.

“Our approach has always been how to control big data that transforms operations, while empowering people,” said Gray Matter Systems CEO Jim Gillespie.

Gray Matter Systems understands that using technology to run a successful operation is more than just software and products. It’s also about people: people who understand problems, can architect solutions within a budget, deliver benefit, and work with plant operators to adopt the solution.

“Everyone gets excited today about the ‘Internet of Things’ but we’ve been working with this approach for 25 years,” Gillespie said. “The technology of today enables it more easily and cost-effectively than ever, through smartphones and other devices.”

Gray Matter Systems creates a digital “twin” for the operational side of major manufacturers, a virtual operation running in parallel with the actual physical plant. Using this tool, Gray Matter Systems steers its customers to understand, identify, and address issues and opportunities in real time, thereby creating ROI that may not have been captured before.

One example is Erie-based GE Transportation, where Gray Matter Systems supports the “Brilliant Factory” program, allowing GE people to make better decisions about how it runs its operations hour-by-hour, day-by-day.

“By designing and implementing a real-time replica for GE Transportation, one where they can make decisions in real time without needing to interrupt or impact their actual manufacturing process, we have enabled them to make things better, right now,” Gillespie explained.

“Our system support is designed to make every operator the best operator, by addressing generational issues, digitizing data and enabling better decision support,” he added. “GE has told us that other firms have come in, consulted with them, and left. We go through the ebbs and flows that happen throughout a project.”

Each engagement is a custom fit. Gray Matter Systems gives bite-sized digestible steps, each with its own ROI, that create an appetite for more. Our customers say, ‘We need more of this, faster– why wouldn’t we?’

“It comes back to empowering people. How can your best people perform better, while operations need to keep running? We’re going to be with you to answer those questions. We’re not leaving you in the dust.”

In addition to firms like GE, Gray Matter Systems also works with global brands like Procter & Gamble and others, as well as major infrastructure providers like DC Water and Wastewater, which provides the nation’s capital with water and sanitation services. Gillespie’s company has offices and professional staff nationwide, serving customers around the world. Interestingly, however, cybersecurity has emerged as a growing category for the company — one that cuts across all verticals.

“People realize they don’t have adequate cyber protection,” he said. “It’s like, the front door is solid metal, with deadbolts, chains, locks and a motion detector– but the back porch window is wide open. The massive information breach, after all, began by hackers getting into information related to an HVAC provider. Our data-digitizing approach applies to customers hoping to enhance their online security, as well.”

Gray Matter Systems hopes to more than double its revenues organically within the next three years, partly by continuing to draw from the strong Pittsburgh connection. “We want to help Pittsburgh as much as Pittsburgh has helped us,” Gillespie said.

The Top 10 Myths about Version Control Management of your PLC's and Control Devices

In the increasingly complex world of computer-controlled automation processes, keeping all the parts of a system on the same page can be a daunting task.

Multifaceted systems made up of a variety of robots, field devices, control programs, drives, programming languages, file formats, and software applications need to be in synch for the whole process to carry on without impediment.

But systems grow and as they do, the parts of the system change or pieces are added and sometimes those adjustments go unnoticed.

Undocumented updates to one facet of the system can have unintended consequences down the line. Adjustments to processes made by one worker come as a complete shock to another because the work was not recorded.

Since change of any size can have catastrophic consequences to the way a system works, it needs to be managed and that’s when version control comes in.

Unfortunately, the discussion around employing a version control software solution is weighed down by a number of myths. The intent of this document is to demystify version control and some of the surrounding misconceptions about the products, technology, and ease of use.

Myth 1: I don’t need version control – we’ve been running our plant without it for years

Without upload, download and “smart” compare, you are running your plant blind.

Current version control systems provide a bullet-proof back up strategy.  They give you the ability to synchronize backup and compares to a central repository even from distributed plants or departments.

Without a modern version control system in place and executing a schedule of upload, download and compare, how can you be assured that what is running your assets is what you want to be running them?

Myth 2: My current strategy for version control is adequate

Older systems that do not have a vibrant user base quickly become long in the tooth.

The speed of change in each of the control system vendors quickly renders smart compares obsolete if they are not regularly kept up to date.

Some older packages are based on technologies like Microsoft’s SourceSafe which has been retired.

Finally, systems that are looking at only a file’s size and date are inadequate for the detailed compare that you need in order to compare the memory-resident PLC program with the “authorized” one in your engineering server.

Myth 3: Version control programs take too long to implement

This is simply not true with the state-of-the-art systems available today.

Current systems can be configured in one day by your staff without hiring an outside engineer or consultant to configure. We have seen system pilots up and running in two hours.

Myth 4: Version control is too risky to implement and hard to get started

The days of needing a huge server and a protracted software deployment project are over.

With the current generation of software technology, version control can be deployed with an extremely small footprint — it can even be run directly from an USB stick.

Myth 5: A version control system works better if you don’t use outside contractors

In today’s environment of everyone working leaner, almost no-one operates without lots of outside help anymore.

That practice is why it is critical for a version control system to provide the ability to understand what changes your Systems Integrator and OEMs have made to your control system.

Another key aspect is capturing the “why” changes were made as well. This capability provides complete traceability.

Myth 6: You need PLC programming software from the PLC vendors and Microsoft SQL Server to support version control.

Again, with the current generation of software technology, version control can be deployed with no need for extra Microsoft licensing like SQL or SourceSafe.

In addition, for major control vendors like Siemens and Rockwell, no programming software is required to buy or install either.

Myth 7: A version control system is hard to learn and come up to speed on

With no additional training required, there are systems that can use Windows File Explorer to check in/check out programs, documents, and files. It can be just that easy.

Myth 8: A version control system is cost prohibitive

Costs are usually driven by a combination of software, hardware, and configuration costs.

With no need for licensing vendor configuration tools like RSLogix™ or Simatic and no special software from Microsoft®, software costs are minimized. With no need to install software on clients, users can still synchronize and work offline and no huge servers to buy, hardware costs are minimized.

Finally, with a quick out of the box experience and minimal training required, implementation costs are minimized.

Myth 9: I need to have a homogeneous environment

A solution that is supplied by one of the control vendors would like you to have a homogeneous environment for sure.

But this environment is not realistic either. There are too many OEM’s, mergers and acquisitions to enforce a homogeneous environment today. We almost always see a blend of control devices and HMI systems.

A robust version control package will have a broad library of support for the industry leading HMI packages and PLC’s.

Myth 10: All systems are about the same

Not true.

Some version control systems deliver unique capability. For example, some systems allow multiple users to work on the same document, but also have the ability to review and integrate the right changes.

Also, the ability to compare memory resident PLC programs from a vendor like Siemens or Rockwell without the programming software loaded is very unique.

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