Mobile devices - Taking things slowly

13 April 2016

Suzanne Gill reports on the use of mobile devices in industrial applications. It appears to be a slow-burn technology on the plant floor and there are some hurdles that need to be overcome before mobile devices become more widely used.

The manufacturing industry sector is notoriously slow at adopting new technologies. However, as mobile device technology begins to mature, a number of opportunities are opening up for ruggedised mobile devices in this sector, although according to automation vendors uptake does appear to remain slow. Where they are being utilised most, is in applications for monitoring SCADA systems, which enables engineers to become more mobile within the plant.

“We are finding that interest in mobile devices is growing every year and the current focus on HTML 5 and web Visualisation will speed up this trend,” said Michael Albrecht, product marketing IPC/HMI, Control and Industry Solutions at Phoenix Contact Electronics. The technology can offer particular benefits to users who require only infrequent access to an HMI as it could help reduce investment in fixed hardware and can help to minimise the effects of equipment failure rates due to dust and vibration, which is often present on the plant floor.

Elbert van der Bijl, manager industry marketing at Yokogawa also believes that the industrial sector is moving towards the use of mobile devices. However, today the company is still seeing a reluctance to utilise the technology extensively due to perceived security issues. “To date the only applications we are seeing have been for second level applications – not control related – for field service and maintenance tasks. We are also seeing some interest in the use of mobile devices in start up support projects, before the plant becomes operational, and also during plant shutdowns when staff are undertaking maintenance activities. However, we feel that fixed monitoring solutions will remain dominant in the process sector for some time,” said van der Bijl.

Ian Langton, mobile product manager at Captec, a supplier of specialist industrial computers, rugged tablet computers and embedded computers, expands on the benefits of mobile monitoring solutions. “Having mobile monitoring solutions on the factory floor benefits the engineers. It means that they are no longer tethered to a single workstation. However, it is not yet commonplace. We are seeing less demand for tablets to replace HMI control applications on the plant floor as it is often desirable to maintain wired connections for reliability when it comes to issues relating to control.”

According to Captec tablets are typically being used an as an addition to fixed plant floor monitoring solutions in the factory. The company has also identified that mobile devices are being used more frequently for trials within an existing plant framework and this is helping businesses to better understand the real world benefits and implications of such a device before they commit to wider use of the technology.

Langton believes that the use of mobile devices will increase in the future as industry has always been heavily influenced by the technology used in our everyday lives. Over the last decade, consumer use of conventional desktop computers has declined – being replaced firstly by laptops, and more recently by tablets. “This sets user expectations, and I fully expect industry to increase the level of mobile devices used for control and monitoring as the cost of this technology is becoming more attractive, and key technologies improve to increase performance and battery life to levels that better fit plant applications,” he said. “This could result in less fixed technologies on the plant floor and more mobile devices, which can be used for multiple applications around the plant. Mobility chiefly means that users are not constrained by workstations which can enhance visibility of business information, and their ability to share and communicate critical information quickly.”

Honeywell concurs that industry is showing an interest in the use of mobile devices on the shop floor, albeit in a cautious way. As the plant floor becomes further automated, more data and information is being handled electronically. “This has led to an expectation that the information should be available all the time and anywhere,” said Rohit Robinson, director, Portfolio innovation at Honeywell.

A typical process
“Today’s shop floor needs access to a variety of information,” continued Robinson. He explained that a typical process might start with the production order being sent to manufacturing. Recipes stored in ERP systems would be added and then get converted into instructions for the manufacturing line. During the manufacturing process, mobile devices could display operating procedures, data sheets, production status, etc. Quality sampling results could be amalgamated to the batch, using mobility. And finally, toward finishing, the actual bill of materials could be read and signed off from mobile devices. Warehouse and logistics are already areas where mobility has seen large adoption. “Today a process like this involves multiple pieces of software (Manufacturing Execution Systems) and mobile devices can eliminate the need to run back and forth from the shop floor to the desktop to access these systems. Human intervention for approvals from mobile devices keeps the supply chain flowing. However, the underlying infrastructure for application integration and security does need to be fine-tuned for mobile,” he said. Cyber security is an important foundational structure of mobility and, according to Robinson, mobile platforms can be secured by having and enforcing policies around VPN (Virtual Private Network), MDM (Mobile Device Management) and reverse proxies. Monitoring has always been the main building block of efficient operations and mobility can bring greater visibility to monitoring systems – again, anytime and anywhere and potentially, by anyone authorised to do so. “If a monitored alarm trips, the people in the control room know about it. But, would the safety director/production manager be sitting in the control room? Mobile solutions such as Honeywell Pulse app can take those same critical alarms out of the control room, delivered as meaningful alerts to relevant personnel, wherever they may be.”

However, Robinson believes that mobile will not completely take over from fixed plant monitoring solutions. “Mobile connectivity to monitoring systems is not as robust as hardwired connectivity. Real time control and monitoring will always remain in place, with mobility offering ease of access to that information,” he predicts.

Information visibility
Mobility benefits for control engineers are expected to lie in the realm of information visibility and remote intervention. For example, if they can see a process variable trending toward an excursion threshold, they can take actions to mitigate the chances of a potential upset. This is available today with apps such as Pulse, which provides collaborative capabilities, in real time, with subject matter experts and gives access to monitoring and trend process variables from a smart device.

Legacy SCADA/HMI systems store their data in registers and have a somewhat limited history of their state. Integrating them with process historians allows all the history to be stored and opens up the information highway to build smart mobile apps that convert data into actionable insights, on a mobile platform. “The value of this is not in the tag, value, confidence and timestamp that comes from sensors, but instead is in knowing what is needed to operate safely, reliably and efficiently. That intelligence comes after business logic is applied to sensor data and that logic is what MES systems provide, on desktops and now, on mobile platforms,” said Robinson.

Augmented reality
The introduction of new technologies, which have already cut their teeth in the consumer sector, such as augmented reality, could make mobile devices a more interesting proposition for the industrial sector. Augmented reality shows a live view of the reality through a mobile device. This view is augmented by computer-generated content. It could benefit maintenance engineers by showing them more equipment related information. It could, for example, allow them to visualise important information related to a device.

Yokogawa is currently working with AkzoNobel on an augument reality project within its R22-Plant which is run by CF Carbons, a joint venture between Fluorchemie and Akzo Nobel Industrial Chemicals, to produce chlorodifluoromethane, a raw material used to produce PTFE.

Use cases for augmented reality, using an iMaintain android-based tablet, are being considered as part of a drive to improve plant safety, product quality and to improve cost efficiencies at the facility through the use of technology innovations. The project identified that the use of augmented reality saves operator time, as field engineers no longer need to either involve a second person to provide them with necessary data, or to return to the control room to visualise current values on the DCS system.

Key considerations
Captec says that there are a number of key factors which need to be considered when integrating mobile devices into legacy SCADA/HMI applications. These include:
Protection – We all use mobile devices at home, or in the office, but these same devices are often not suitable for use within a plant environment due to the environmental hazards that are often present, including ingress of liquids and dust.

Rugged tablets should include a wide range of protection features that makes them suitable for a range of hazardous environments, from basic ruggedisation to prevent damage from mishandling, through to ingress protection and even ATEX certification for use in hazardous environments.

Battery life and charging practicalities – Breaking free of being a fixed device, battery life and charging methodology becomes an important consideration for tablets used in on the plant floor. For mobile devices to become truly mobile all the time, real world battery life needs to match up to the length of a shift, or the time periods during which it will be used. In addition, in larger plants, rolling out larger populations of tablets can result in a problem with ensuring that devices get put back on charge easily without inconveniencing their users by having to plug devices back in with a fiddly connector, which over time may itself become damaged or unreliable.

Especially demanding usage applications can now utilise tablets with hot-swappable batteries to enable users to stay on the plant floor for extended durations.

Keeping multiple tablets charged is an issue that can be addressed with the use of a charging station that enables several users to simply drop a tablet off for a charge in a single location, rather than requiring them to be plugged in a power connector every time.

Smaller usage scenarios might have only a few users equipped with mobile devices at first, which could make use of a single tablet docking station, perhaps at a fixed workstation, where they can leave the tablet to charge when not in use, as well as providing an opportunity to connect fixed I/O such as Ethernet and USB to provide even more functionality.

Network connectivity – Because a mobile device needs to network with other systems to monitor or even control, key to its effectiveness is network performance and reliability. It is, therefore critical that proper consideration (such as a site survey) is given to the wireless networking provision available anywhere on the plant floor.

Mobile devices have been shown to offer time saving benefits for field engineers, enabling them to stay in touch with what is happening on the plant floor, wherever they may be. However, there does appear to be some hesitation in the extensive utilisation of the technology and it seems that more work needs to be done by automation vendors to help overcome the cyber security fears and to more actively demonstrate the productivity and efficiency benefits that mobile devices are able to provide.

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