PLC to . . . Blackberry

07 December 2009

Mitsubishi Electric’s e-F@ctory Alliance partnership scheme has come up with an interesting new collaboration with Schad GmbH.

Christian Schad, showing his PLC-to-BlackBerry concept at SPS
Christian Schad, showing his PLC-to-BlackBerry concept at SPS

The Hamburg-based technology company has a “cutting edge” application that links Mitsubishi’s PLCs to a BlackBerry® handset. Users can make changes to production schedules, respond to, diagnose and make adjustments based on any number of performance parameters or fault conditions.

The famous BlackBerry communication device combines the functionality of a hand held PC with the connectivity of a mobile phone and access to the Internet. It allows users to do business and stay connected to the office. It is estimated there are, worldwide, about 30 million users.

Now that familiar handset is being used for the first time to connect directly with programmable controllers.

Christian Schad, managing director and originator of the concept, has been working with BlackBerry devices for 15 years, and thinks it is an ideal platform to deliver fast mobile interaction with remote plant equipment. He was on hand at the recent SPS show in Nürnberg to demonstrate the concept in the Mitsubishi stand.

Wherever the operator can get mobile reception, which is currently most of the populated western world, he can now stay up-to-date with plant performance, he says.

He explains that, while the device is tied in with the mobile telecommunications network for standard telephone use and text messaging, the signal that connects it to the Internet is a different frequency and is much less sensitive to the location of the receiver. This is the key technology enabler of the BlackBerry concept—the fact that it can carry on its Internet connection with a signal that is relatively much weaker than a standard mobile telephone signal.

“We were in a parking garage at the Munich airport, four levels down, and still could receive an adequate signal for Internet connection,” he said.

Connecting to the factory floor

To connect the PLCs with the BlackBerry, a SCADA layer hosted on a local factory server connects directly to the PLCs. At the moment, only only Mitsubishi’s FX series are included in the scheme. The factory server provides a secure connection via the BlackBerry enterprise server to the Internet and out to the mobile network via a “stable and secure” encrypted signal.

The result, says Mr. Schad, is real-time interaction with the PLCs functionality, via simple easily executable commands, from anywhere on site or indeed from another country.

“The system has proved extremely popular with large production sites and businesses such as utility companies where the engineering and maintenance teams have to monitor and maintain many remote sites such as local pumping and processing sites.”

Grand plans

The ambition of Schad GmbH is to become a global market leader in the field of mobile systems for operating and monitoring machine and plant controls. Mr. Schad says he personally knows the two founders of RIM, the Canadian-based company that produces the BlackBerry, and wants to follow their success.

“We hope this solution will be established as the standard for mobile access to Mitsubishi Programmable Logic Controllers,” he said.

“The support we have received from Mitsubishi has been excellent … we have been able to demonstrate the benefits of the system and convince users that it really does save time for solving problems and improving plant uptime, while freeing operators to move around and take care of other management issues without being shackled to a PC and a hardwired Ethernet link.”

The Schad solution includes features such as mobile access to plant documentation, logging of transactions and reporting.

Mitsubishi e-F@ctory Alliance

Commenting on the system’s success, the originator of the Mitsubishi e-F@ctory Alliance scheme, Chris Hazlewood, commented,

‘We were looking for real world applications for our partnership programme, companies and people that have developed a solution that builds on the basic communication and control architecture of our factory automation systems.

“The solution from Schad offers our end users the opportunity to make better use of personnel and make improvements to communications and productivity. We are also looking for future potential and believe this platform has the potential to be extended to include the majority of Mitsubishi automation products.”

The Schad system is currently compatible with any Mitsubishi FX Series PLC in a network that is connected to the Internet.

Mr. Hazelwood said future plans call for BlackBerry connectivity to be expanded to larger Mitsubishi products such as the iQ Automation Platform as well as inverters and servos.

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