If you’re like most industrial report customers, you’re being pushed to deliver a report, likely due to some regulation. That can be EPA, FDA, or any of a slew of other agencies or recommenders of best practices.

In many applications, reports are a requirement. We call those compliance reports. That’s true of water and waste water markets, life sciences, food and beverage. These and many other markets all have quality requirements that demand documentation. Other reports may be for billing purposes or custody transfer, common requirements for energy industries, the power, oil and gas markets. That demand has been the driving force for the world of industrial report generation since the advent of data logging.

The industrial reporting market has been slow to evolve, and there’s been little to choose from. Consider this, the typical scenario for acquiring a reporting solution. Your market demands a Compliance report and the boss says, “Git-r-done!” The Budget – typically not as important. Why? Because these reports are mission critical, they’re in the direct line of business, in fact – often you can’t be in business without them, and there can be fines if they’re not delivered. Getting that report is the focus, and a product or service is selected, and the check-box is complete, but the result isn’t the report you want running your business. The solution that’s been implemented generally isn’t flexible enough or easy enough for anyone but domain experts to use. Your reporting solution gets the initial job done by addressing the key requirement, but at a high expense. Yet, you still need other tools, typically manual tools, for additional data visibility and ad-hoc analysis.

Let’s talk about past options for reporting. Automated report generation began in the early 1980s. One of the first automated solutions for industry came in the form of Lotus @Factory. Automating a spreadsheet became easier with the introduction of Microsoft’s COM technology. Some reporting companies leveraged COM, automated the insertion of data into a workbook and triggered workbook execution and printing. Other companies created specific solutions designed for niche industrial applications, but their applicability was narrow and they were cumbersome to apply and maintain. Significant improvements also started with the introduction of Crystal Reports. Finally, there was a quality, flexible, and purpose built reporting solution for business applications. The competition increased when Microsoft introduced SQL Server Reporting Services as an add-on to their Microsoft SQL Database. Since that time, Crystal Reports and Microsoft SSRS have dominated the business reporting market. Through the efforts of IT professionals and System Integrators they have also been widely applied in the industrial markets, albeit with some shoehorning to make them fit the application.

Why would people apply business class products in industrial applications? Industrial companies all say, “because we didn’t know any better” or, “because our IT department is delivering that functionality, and it’s the only technology that they know.”

So, what are the differences between business and industrial reporting? Understanding this, will shed a whole new light on the subject, and why a purpose built “Industrial” solution is so important.

First, let’s understand that industrial data is fundamentally different. Business reports are typically about lists of information, counts, dollars and cents. In industrial applications, while you may have all that, you also have devices that generate 1s and 0s in a time series database. There are common calculations that you’ll want to apply to them such as run-times, cycle counts, percent utilization. Other variables can generate incrementing values, like a meter reading. Analog values are often stored with compression and returned values are not evenly distributed. Calculations need to be time aware to return the proper values for things like averages or the integration for totalizations. Specialty markets have their own calculations like those for sterilization processes (F0), thermal storage equivalence (Mean Kinetic Temp), BTU content for fuels and many other calculations not inherently understood by products designed for business purposes. An industrial product understands the intricacies of dealing with industrial data and removes the burden of customization when attempting to apply business class solutions.

Second, industrial data sources have fundamentally different data access methods than those from business data sources. Hundreds of industry leading automation products offer support for special interfaces and industrial data access standards. These interfaces usually ensure a level of validation with respect to the date, time and data being transferred. That validation is commonly referred to as data quality. You know the data is good because the associated data quality says so. Their proprietary interfaces and support for industrial standards, such as OPC, support TVQ (Time, Value and Quality) data access. However, most automation products also support interfaces common to the business world, typically ODBC and OLE DB, enabling very generic access to products. These are typically business solutions unaware of TVQ methods. Business tools can access and perform calculations on automation data but the results will be far less sophisticated than a purpose built industrial solution offers.

Reports can be much more valuable than you realize. While you may have been focused on the line of business reports that you must have, consider the value in having any report that you’d ever want. While many reports are a requirement of your business, more and more customers are realizing that reports are an excellent way to share information and drive continuous improvement. These are performance reports. They have typically been out of reach in the past due to the lack of ease of use of alternative reporting solutions. Performance Reports facilitate collaboration and drive a discussion. Generated automatically and distributed via email, ftp or a browser based portal, these reports become the way to pass knowledge from one shift to the next and to understand your important KPIs. Reports are an excellent archival document letting you revisit past information and the decisions that may have been based on them.

Success doesn’t just come about by generating and distributing a report. The report needs to be well designed, one that shows your KPIs and places them into context. That’s when you have enough information to drive action. Context means surrounding your KPIs with comparative information. Don’t just deliver values in isolation. Compare values from one time to another, year over year or one batch to the next or to the golden batch.

Adding context will drive action. That action may be as simple as asking the question why. Why is my performance down? Why is my energy utilization higher? Why did that batch take longer? For these questions, you need an information portal. You need to perform ad-hoc analysis around the KPIs that are included in your report.