Little Rock, Big Data

Driving decisions at a plant with data from the SCADA system

Dee Brown writes on driving decisions at a plant using data from a SCADA system

Technology has come a long way since 1995. That is why Central Arkansas Water (CAW) has seen numerous benefits from its new SCADA system. The upgrade to its 22-year-old system was completed in May 2017. Switching to a more robust SCADA package brought CAW improved user experience, easier maintenance, faster trending analysis, better reporting and unlimited licensing. CAW has been so pleased with the system that it already has expanded upon it and is planning more expansion in the future.

CAW, based in Little Rock, is a metropolitan water system serving 450,000 people in Little Rock, North Little Rock, and surrounding communities. It has 125,000 residential, commercial, industrial and master-metered customers in three counties. To help with its SCADA system upgrade, CAW brought in engineering system integrator Brown Engineers of Little Rock. The award-winning firm helps government and private institutions, utilities, and heavy industry increase efficiency, productivity and security.

For CAW’s new SCADA system, Brown recommended the Ignition industrial application platform. Ignition has tools for building solutions in SCADA, human-machine interface (HMI), and the Industrial Internet of Things.

Drastic Improvement

“In 1995, we began using GE iFIX as our software platform for SCADA,” said Doug Graham, assistant director of water production for CAW. “In 2017, we went through an upgrade and went with the Ignition product. With Ignition, we’ve seen a drastic improvement in the aesthetics of the screens, the user functionality for the operators, the maintenance and the reporting features of the software.”

CAW’s old SCADA system had been increasingly obsolete, costly, frustrating to use and difficult to maintain. It lacked data management between treatment plants. In 2016, CAW was still using its original 1995 SCADA, and had been updating it when necessary. The result was not flexible, integrated or database-friendly. Installation and development were slow. Its proprietary nature demanded otherwise unnecessary, utility-wide PC and/or hardware upgrades every few years. Expensive license fees were charged per tag, client and connection.

Due to the size of the CAW system, there are two lakes used as water sources, two treatment plants and separate radio-based telemetry systems for managing 58 remote sites.

In the old system, historical data collected in multiple locations had to be synchronized between multiple servers. This process was initially done in Windows with custom drivers and was later migrated to the programmable logic controller level. This created a large amount of data traffic between the two plants to maintain the real-time and historical data needed by operations at both plants. A better SCADA approach was needed to easily manage all aspects, including data collection, system control, graphical interfaces, database management and reporting.

Remote data is now seamlessly transferred between the Ignition gateways and databases. When viewing these screens, the data is automatically shown regardless of the data source. This is due to the applications engineered to allow for easy maintenance and operation across redundant systems and four databases. All the data for viewing live operations and historical data are shown seamlessly throughout the computer system.

The new system eliminated proprietary code that was managing the multiple data sources. This was accomplished with standard embedded features configured and enabled by Brown Engineers. Additional features include reporting, out-of-service equipment management, alarm management and extremely fast trends.

The system-wide SCADA migration brought numerous improvements. CAW’s Graham said key gains have occurred in reporting, trending and speed. Getting data is much faster, as is the ability to make changes. “When a new screen is made, or an edit to a screen is made, we don’t have to copy it around or have a batch file set up,” Graham said. “It’s web-based, so we just click one button and it’s updated.”

CAW also has more capabilities when it comes to reports. It has been a big leap forward. “Reports are extremely fast,” Graham said. “And they’re not laborsome to develop, as they were with our old software.”


The SCADA software is web-based and syncs across all machines. When a screen is edited, changed or updated, it is reflected instantaneously on all other devices.


Comprehensive Solution

The SCADA/HMI upgrade involved an extensive request for quotation process. Brown Engineers did several demonstrations of the software, and numerous discussions about high-performance HMI were part of the process. Factory acceptance tests were performed to show progress along the way. CAW provided input as the solution was developed. The CAW team’s involvement was important, as it planned to maintain the new system itself.

With the new system, the two treatment plants each have redundant Ignition gateways connected through a wide area network. They have built-in redundancy at the hardware level, so control of remote-system polling can easily be transferred from one plant to the other.

The features in Ignition allowed Brown to easily provide data to any user in the system. Users do not need to know which gateway they are logged into, or where the data is coming from—that is all managed automatically by the software.

Brown developed several features in the software to help CAW with its operations, including an application-state development tool with a color scheme and user-defined templates that allow reuse of elements on numerous screens. Communication status displays provide information on connectivity to devices. These and other features allow changes to be made very quickly, and the changes are instantly propagated throughout the system.

High-Performance HMIs

The new high-performance HMI screens developed by Brown Engineers in the Ignition platform provide much more data per screen for CAW. Time is saved, as operators don’t need to click through as many screens as they had to before. Additional information can easily be found from the main screens. The look has been a big hit with CAW.

“The operators, supervisors and managers at first were leery, because we were so used to what I call the ‘rainbow’ screens, which were brightly colored,” Graham said. “But now we’re all enjoying the new screens because it’s all one color if everything is in a steady state. If there’s an issue, you have a bright color come up on the screen. And you have different colors for different problems. So, with a quick glance, you know if there’s a problem.”

Trending data also is easily available. Data can be viewed by day, week or month. Users can get the specific data they need much more quickly than they could with the previous system.

“The historical trends the Brown Engineers team built in groups is very efficient for the operators to use,” Graham said. “The speed at which it retrieves the data is an improvement. And the different ways we can go in and set the parameters for the timeslot, whether it’s a month or a week or a day. And the data is pulled so incredibly fast compared to our old system. It’s a very good benefit.”

Graham also appreciates the screens with sparkline charts right next to tank graphics. “The sparkline charts are a great advantage,” he said. “We can click on those and expand them, and change the time duration when we want to see tank levels as well. That’s been a huge improvement for operations, to be able to manipulate the system and see what we need to see.”

The alarm system also improved. Alarms can be examined by frequency, by duration and more. The software provides alarming data that CAW simply did not have before.

Ignition’s quad monitor support also has been helpful. With four monitors together, operators can see plenty of data on both treatment plants at once, or can get a more detailed view of one plant. CAW now has many more displays than it had in the past.

Streamlined Future

With the new software, Brown Engineers has provided CAW with a secure, future-proof system with two master control points. It allows full use of all operational data collected. For easy in-house maintenance, it uses Java and SQL database technologies, both familiar to CAW’s information technology staff. CAW can manage all projects, licensing and system backups from one server.

CAW chose Ignition because it is flexible, is modular, is database-centric and easily connects with any database. It provides true real-time analytics. It is made for rapid installation and development. And it provides greater performance and versatility for a fraction of what CAW had been paying to license and maintain its old SCADA system.

The new system also provides CAW with graphical and tag standards moving forward. Training of new personnel will be easier and faster because of these tools. Security-level access for analog signal adjustments for supervisors and maintenance staff allows easier access to calibration and alarm setpoints. Equipment can be placed out of service with the click of a button, instead of operators having to manually modify graphic screens and tags.

As CAW’s system grows, adding new sites will be easier too. Ignition’s unlimited licensing will not require additional costs, and the templates will provide standards so all new sites look and behave like the existing ones.

CAW is now looking at migrating legacy historical data in Ignition. This data will help CAW provide better information for water quality studies and other long-term projects. 


About the author

Dee Brown is principal and co-founder of Brown Engineers. Brown can be reached at 501.448.0100 x113 or [email protected].