Firing and Drying

Web-Based Kiln Monitoring

September 4, 2012
KEYWORDS controllers / kilns
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Web-based kiln monitoring systems can be useful, but a diverse set of variables can affect their design and implementation.

Firing kilns can be a lengthy process, so monitoring them from remote locations has its advantages. The term “remote monitoring” can mean monitoring from another section of the same building, across campus, or around the globe. Web-based kiln monitoring systems can be useful, but a diverse set of variables can affect their design and implementation.

Safety

When kilns are monitored remotely, it is important to have sufficient safety controls and fail-safe systems firmly in place to guarantee the safe termination of the firing should something go wrong. Knowing that a kiln is over-
firing and being unable to take appropriate action would be disastrous. For this reason, some systems offer completely separate and independent monitoring and control.

The significant difference between monitoring, recording, and controlling should be carefully noted and never confused. While it is possible to monitor and control within the same system, it is important that the hardware be able to run on its own if the Internet or network connection is severed.

Setup and Networking

While the idea of web-based monitoring seems logical and intuitive for those of us who have grown up with the Internet and Wi-Fi, the actual act of setting up and getting the hardware and software package to work can be a difficult task. Each situation is unique, and every piece of hardware and software has its own pros and cons.

Networking a piece of hardware can be a daunting task for even the most tech-savvy individual. Universities, corporations and even home networks have security features that require networking know-how, as well as information about accessible ports, port forwarding, and more. Often, a networking professional is needed to set up the connection properly.

Hardware and Software

Monitoring remotely over the web can be accomplished with a piece of proprietary software or a web browser. Using an application that is installed on a personal computer has both pros and cons that should be carefully weighed. The main advantage is that most people already have personal computers readily available. On the other hand, these computers have varied hardware and software differences that could cause potential conflicts. Additional applications and processes being run on the computer can cause significant disturbances. Personal computers can also develop hardware or software problems over time, such as viruses, and require updates that effect functionality.

An alternative option is to have the web hosting or web serving take place on a hardware and software system that is specifically designed for the application. This kind of real-time operating system performs only one task and is therefore designed to be stable and consistent. The Kiln Tech has its own real-time operating system and can be accessed via a web browser, smartphone or tablet. It doesn’t matter if it is Mac, Windows, Linux, Android or iPhone. The system features wireless communication between the nodes and the Kiln Tech, eliminates a lot of complex wiring, and allows many kilns to be connected to one main processing and web serving hardware device. The Kiln Tech enables multiple people in various locations to monitor kilns simultaneously, which offers advantages for university settings, and is well-suited for retrofit applications.

In another option, the Kiln Link system by Skutt, the computation and data processing take place in the cloud. A server receives the data over the Internet, processes the data, and then provides the resulting information. The processing is essentially done remotely.

While this approach shares processing power and removes the data storage burden from the customer, the Internet connection must be maintained in order for the server to continue to be fed with data. If the Internet connection is lost, so is the data service and logging capability. The system can be configured to send a text message or email to notify the operator if the connection has been lost. (An annual fee is charged for this service, with several different options available.)

The Blaauw system is another option that resides on a PC and is a piece of proprietary software that turns the Windows XP or 7 PC into a data logger and web server. The data collected by the hardware is “dumped” onto the PC’s hard drive as a Microsoft Excel file. In addition, the software allows several different tiers of access to the kiln and can enable someone to remotely control the kiln from around the globe. It can lock out lower level users (like students) and allow mid-level operators access and control to various functions. The Blaauw system can monitor up to eight kilns on a single PC, but only one user can remotely log on at a time.

Some functions of the computer are limited because the software takes priority over port access. For example, a user cannot use Skype while the kiln is firing because the software is using the port. The system also processes the data as it is being recorded, so a real-time graph of various data logs is created. The Blaauw system requires a physical piece of hardware to be connected to the kiln, and the computer connects to this “interface” box via a wired connection.

How Web-Based Kiln Monitoring Works

Once the system is set up, the hard part is done. The user accesses the kiln by typing a URL into the browser, which displays the information. At this point, the user can navigate just like they would on a normal website.

 With a web-based system, it is possible to have multiple people in multiple locations monitoring the same kiln at the same time. One advantage is that technical support is only a few clicks away. One knowledgeable individual can help more people in more places because he or she does not need to be onsite to know what is going on and how to fix it. This greatly expands the capabilities of support functions and is a trend that is becoming a standard across many industries. The Blaauw system can remotely fire the kiln should the operator require assistance.

Recording (also called data logging) is an important aspect of many of the systems and is useful for quality control and troubleshooting. A data log is a collection of data points collected over time. This information can include virtually anything measurable. For example, some systems monitor electrical characteristics, while others monitor valve positions. The most common measurements are time and temperature. Raw data may not always be meaningful, so the more complete the data set, the more meaning can be derived from its interpretation.

The log and subsequent processing of the data allows the necessary elements to be compared and formed into a picture that can be seen over the web. It takes a processor to turn the data into a graph in real time. A dedicated piece of hardware called a signal conditioner can also be used to reduce the load on the processor. A signal conditioner eliminates noise and handles some processing functions like cold junction compensation, which reduces the load required of the processor.

Due to the nature of thermocouples, it is necessary to consider the physical characteristics of the bi-metals that they are made from as well as the cold junction temperature. Taking all of this information into account, filtering out noise, and presenting a stable temperature reading is no easy task. The resulting information can either be converted into a universal format for transmission over long distances, or it can be sent directly to another piece of hardware. Sometimes this is done wirelessly, which has its own challenges and benefits.

After all of the data is received and processed, the results are then displayed in a variety of graphical formats. One example is a simple time vs. temperature graph, which allows a viewer to quickly asses the trend of a firing. The format is .csv, or comma-separated value, which can be opened in programs like Excel and Open Office once a firing is complete. The .csv format is text based, so a lot of data can be stored in a very small space.

It is important that the sample rate be tuned to the process and detail required. Better hardware and software applications allow users to tune this variable. It is also important that the data log be stored in non-volatile memory so the data is not lost in the event of a power interruption. Better systems save as they run.


 

For additional information, contact Kiln Information Technology at 6 Windsor Court, Lansdale, PA 19446; call (845) 417-3635; email neal@kilnit.com; or visit www.kilnit.com. Skutt’s website is located at www.skutt.com, while Blaauw can be found online at www.blaauwproducts.com.

Author’s Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the following people for their contributions: Donovan Palmquist from Master Kiln Builders and VP at Kiln Information Technology for his support on the development of the Kiln Tech; Jim Bailey for being a mentor, teacher and colleague when I worked at Bailey Pottery; Brian Yanoff, Ph.D., physicist and technical advisor for The Kiln Tech; Jeff Chown from Blaauw Kilns for his input and information on the Blaauw System; Steve Lewicki, president of L&L Kiln Co., for his input and support; and Jessica Kleinerman for her suggestions and input in the development of the Kiln Tech.

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