Data access from everywhere

Limitations have kept mobile data access on the tradeshow floor and out of most process plants, but things are changing for the better because of a number of hardware and software tools that are making it practical.

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By Dan Hebert, PE

Dan HebertEvery tradeshow seems to include a mobile data access demonstration. You know, some guy or girl is hovering near their booth with a PDA device in hand, showing off remote wireless access to a PC in their booth.

The catch with most of these demonstrations is that they need lots of custom programming to provide limited-range access to small amounts of data from a restricted number of applications. These limitations have kept mobile data access on the tradeshow floor and out of most process plants.

Things are changing for the better because of a number of hardware and software tools that make mobile data access practical. On the hardware side, lots of mobile devices with 2-in. and up color displays and connectivity to cell phone networks and the Internet are in the hands of operations, maintenance and management personnel.

On the software side, off-the-shelf software is now available to enable mobile device access to a number of existing plant data sources. These packages take advantage of new Microsoft technologies that provide high levels of security with a minimal amount of programming.

KeySpan, the largest electric generator in New York State, uses these advanced systems to distribute real-time data across multiple levels of its organization.

“Our employees, no matter what their role in the organization or whether they’re at their desktop or on a cell phone, need access to certain business-critical information,” says John Ragone, automation manager of KeySpan’s electric production department. “We’re enabling more efficient and smarter decision-making by putting on-demand key performance indicator (KPI) data in the hands of these employees.”

The first question that KeySpan had to answer was why mobile data access was better than access from a fixed PC. “Ninety percent of our managers and field personnel spend much of their time in the plant away from their office desktop and notebook computers, so remote access makes sense for us,” says Ragone.

The next question was how to make this remote access  user-friendly. “Most of our employees know how to use a cell phone and an Internet browser. We knew that we would have a winner if we could provide a solution that leverages an already-installed infrastructure to provide data where and when our people want it in the format they want to see. Using familiar browser technology within a compact cell phone hardware platform reduces training costs and speeds implementation,” he adds.

KeySpan has created a manager toolbox that consists of the base KPIs managers want to see. “We set up screens with information relevant to each particular management group. Operations managers see unit-level data, including unit loads, status, opacity, nitrogen oxide (NOX), turbine vibration data, steam temperatures and boiler chemistry. Station managers see rolled-up unit-level data like unit status, opacity and NOX. Managers at headquarters see fleet-level data, such as system load, station load, station status and percent fuel burn,” according to Ragone.

These data are accessed from KeySpan’s OSIsoft PI data historian using Transpara’s Visual KPI operations intelligence software. “Our software allows users to configure screens on mobile devices that display KPI information from a number of data sources including OSIsoft’s PI System, SQL Server, Oracle, Excel services, Business Scorecard Manager and web services,” reports Michael Saucier, the CEO of Transpara.

Transpara’s software allows a single device to display information from multiple data sources simultaneously. Although tricks like this could be accomplished at any tradeshow with lots of custom programming, Transpara claims that its solution is much simpler to implement.

KeySpan could have created its own software solution, but it opted for Tranpara’s instead. “We know how to produce electric power safely and efficiently. We are not webmasters or programmers. We wanted a vendor that understood our interfaces and could adapt to our changing and evolving needs. Transpara has proved up to the task,” observes Ragone.

He jokes that his staff agreed not to do any weekend programming if Transpara agreed to not produce any electric power. Point made, KeySpan thinks it is a good idea to stick with its core competencies and leave the software to others.

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