By Nancy Bartels, Managing Editor
Youve seen those commercials for the high-end cell phones and wireless computers singing the siren song of a disconnected workplace: the tan fella in swimming trunks kicked back in a deckchair, umbrella drink in hand, enjoying the lake view, doing deals on his wireless laptop, or at the campfire at dusk with the sun setting behind the mountain, checking his email prior to a peaceful night in the wilderness.
What the ads dont show is what happens to the laptop when he spills that umbrella drink into his keyboard; nor do they point out that at the campfire in the wilderness, the nearest cell tower is probably 200 miles away, and the reception on that expensive wonder phone is zip. Nor do the ads discuss the fate of such a phone dropped out of a canoe or down a 50-ft. ravine.
Dont even think about what would happen to such a device on the factory floor.
So is this talk of turning popular handheld, mobile devices from the consumer world into vital factory tools just so much marketing bushwa? Not exactly.
Lief Eriksen, director of industry solutions for Motorola (http://business.motorola.com/us/enterprise/index.html) says, Nobody is doing control with a handheld device on a wireless network, and I would bet that wont happen for a long time. And few would argue with him.
That said, as wireless technology improves, reporting software becomes more sophisticated and adapted to multiple platforms, and the advantages of remote operation become clearer, disconnecting the operators and engineers from their big-screen control rooms and putting them nearer the action becomes more doable and appealing. The PlantBerry or some other handheld mobile devices will, and in some cases already have, become just one more item in the process engineer or operators toolbox.
Fantasy visions of poolside work aside, companies can get serious benefits and ROI by taking advantage of various handheld, wireless devices for gathering and reporting data around the facility. National Grid, London, the largest utility in the U.K. and the second largest in the U.S., following its acquisition of KeySpan Energy, deployed a combination of OSIsofts PI System and Transparas Visual KPI software to aggregate data from multiple, existing data sources to deliver real-time composite information to employees cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDA). The system, deployed in one of its state-side facilities, is role-based, delivering information to people as varied as gas turbine users, energy traders, executives in different business areas, and people in engineering, operations and environmental control.
National Grid realized ROI in less than six months and gained a 2% reduction in overtime, a 2% technician/operation productivity gain, and $5,000 to $10,000 saving per environmental incident avoided.
In another application, CSIA-certified systems integrator Data Science Automation in Pittsburgh, Pa., developed a mercury emissions sampling system to help a coal-fired power plant meet government regulatory reporting requirements. Key to the application was linking a National Instruments (NI) Compact FieldPoint PAC with a wireless communications interface on a PDA. The PDA provides all the status displays and operator interactions. The system saves data to the CompactFlash drive and broadcasts data over an RS 485 serial connection to a data logger. All control and programming of the PAC, as well as all user feedback, is through a wireless connection running the NI LabView PDA module. [For more details on this application, see Dan Heberts Technically Speaking column, PACs for Communications and Data Handling. Listen to the podcast of the column.]
Not So Fast
So maybe theres something to talk about here, but first a little perspective. This reporting of activities and gathering data on handheld devices is only a small part of much bigger trends that have been seeping slowly through the process industries for a number of years. These are the conquest of the factory floor by PCs, the following growth of PC-based software for industrial tasks, and the growth of open communications protocols, says Robert Jackson, in product marketing at NI.
To get a picture of where handhelds fit in this scheme, Jackson harks back to the evolution of the industrial PC (IPC), which he sees as developing in two directions. One is handheld devices. Things have become more portable, he says. But thats not where the core of the IPC market has evolved.
That evolution took place as Windows-based PCs replaced older, proprietary systems. Following that, the traditional PC evolved into the rugged boxed PC, says Jackson. That rugged PC, in turn, is morphing into so many shapes that it becomes hard to tell what an IPC really is any more. [See Jim Montagues Industrial PCs Take New Forms for New Jobs. ]
At the same time, the PLC has evolved into the PAC. What happened is that we cherry-picked features we wanted from PCsopen communication protocols, such as 802.11, standard Ethernet on the factory floor connected to the PAC, says Jackson. The second thing that evolved was processing speed. Now PACs are seeing high-end processors being deployed. This is where industrial PCs are goinga combination of open communication, increased processing speed and high-speed I/O.
Getting all the information out of that more powerful PC or PAC to where it needs to be in as near real time as possible is the premise behind bringing handheld communications devices to the factory floor and more remote locations.
What people find so attractive is the real-time component, says John Lindsey, executive vice president at Rapid Solutions USA, a subsidiary of systems integrator Rapid Technologies in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Real-time capability puts all the information in the hands of the workers, and gives them decision-making capabilities. The goal is to enable them to work in real time on non-DCS equipment. It saves time, and more important, it stops them from making poor decisions in the field.
That said, a handheld device isnt meant to be a substitute for desktop computers or control room SCADA/HMI systems, says Michael Saucier, founder and CEO of Transpara. Handheld devices augment the desktop and give users access to key decision-support systems in a way they havent had it before. They provide a new use case for existing information. Its not a new system, but its taking what you already have and using it more efficiently.
Cutting the Cord
The main driver and basic supporting technology for pushing handheld devices onto the factory floor and out into the field is wireless. Once the cord between the computer and reporting devices literally is cut, any device, from a ruggedized laptop to a tablet PC to a smart cell phone, becomes a candidate for a suitable information-delivery device, and more than ever, successful process manufacturing is all about access to information, not just in the control room, but everywhere and anywhere.
Theres been an enormous amount of downsizing. Each person is taking on more roles and responsibility, says Saucier. People are at their desks much less than they used to be. Theyre going places, meeting people, doing stuff. Theyre wearing four and five hats and have to switch quickly. Theres almost no way to do all that if people are chained to their desks, yet theyre tethered to the responsibility [for the information on their PCs].
In short, handhelds equipped with the supporting software are enabling an ever-thinning workforce to do more with less time spent going back to central control room for no reason. No making phone calls when all you have to do was look at a screen, says Saucier.
What about the practical aspects of making a remote access system work? First, perhaps surprisingly, not every instance of a remote device needs to be ruggedized. The natural tendency is to think all these devices should be, says Jackson, but it all depends on exactly what youre using the device for.
For a portable measuring system that one guy is carrying around, you can buy a single, high-end, ruggedized, high-performance device, says Jackson, adding the caveat that ruggedization always adds size, weight and cost.
But if youre getting alarms on your cell phone, its a different matter. Remember that its your cell phone, advises Jackson. Its first purpose is to make calls. Making it ruggedized makes it less useful for its core purpose. The open communication protocols that PACs use allow the user to deploy standard, off-the-shelf hardwaresmart phones, PDAs, Toughbooks. They function well because theyre designed to be consumer devices. The idea is to enable people to see whats on that standard screen. If youre just trying to get alarms, a simpler, lower-cost, more readily usable device is better.
Still, there are places where ruggedization is essential. You cant take a run-of-the-mill BlackBerry into the refinery or factory. Even the Coca-Cola delivery guy uses a reggedized computer, because they get dropped, etc. If you bring them into a refinery, they have to be certified to work in hazardous areas, reminds Motorolas Eriksen. In some cases they have to be IS-certified.
That, of course, increases the cost of deployment, sometimes by an order of magnitude more than a consumer-grade device. But there are compromise approaches.
You can get something thats not much more than a commercial PDA or smart phone. Its what we call durable. Its not fully ruggedized, but it will last longer than a consumer-grade model. But heres the thing. Lets assume you dont really care if it breaks. Studies say that the total cost of ownership of a ruggedized device will still be less because youre going to get four or five years out of it, compared to a year or year and a half even if it doesnt break. One of the issues with a consumer model is that they get upgraded every 18 months.
That upgrade cycle is an important consideration for manufacturers considering rolling out handhelds to employees. They dont want to have to replace them every 18 months. Furthermore, ruggedized devices all have replaceable batteriesunlike many consumer models.
In the end, says Jackson, The PDA is an added bell and whistle. Its not a substitute for a standard SCADA/HMI. Now its hard to justify the cost of the PDA for all operators, but when the price keeps coming down, that becomes less of a disadvantage.
While real-time access to information for decision-making is the added-value carrot being dangled in front of potential customers, its important to remember that since many of the applications of handhelds in process operations have to do with recordkeeping and documentation, at some point or other, information gathered on the handheld will have to be synched up to the system of record.
Many implementations are untethered to a point, says Stephen Lambright, VP of marketing and customer service at wireless network system and services provider Apprion. At the end of the day, the connection to the system of record is remade. It gives some degree of portability. It makes information available to the person in the plant, even if it isnt in real time. It might be discontinuous, but its better than nothing.
An industrial wireless network is essential for any sort of PlantBerry reporting, Lambright adds. Smart phones and PDAs rely on cellular networks. You cant tie that into a system of record, so you have to create a wireless network thats secure and high-performance, and its unlikely thats going to be cellular. Its going to be Wi-Max or 802.11 or some standard designed for the purpose. Youre going to want to create a dedicated network, so youre not creating a risk in the plant.
And that dedicated network is one of the sticking points for some process manufacturers. Putting wireless intrastructure in an industrial facility is not at all like installing one in an office, says Motorolas Eriksen. Were not talking about just putting in a bunch of hot spots. You have to take into account battery life, security, issues about pre-emptive roaming. Getting coverage is much more challenging than in an office. You need to do a much better job of surveying the facility and designing the infrastructure.
The Holistic View
Once we start talking about installing wireless architecture, the potentially ugly conflict between IT and plant operations looms. The way to avoid the conflictor at least minimize its negative effectsis to take a holistic view, says Eriksen.
Too many companies will deploy wireless and handhelds separately. Then they find out theyre not as compatible as they thought, he says. Weve seen too many cases where one group puts in wireless, and another group puts in handhelds, and theyre not talking to one another.
The challenge is that in an organizational hierarchy where the plant is Level 3 and IT is Level 4, the wireless system and accompanying handheld deployment falls at Level 3.5. Whos going to own 3.5? asks Eriksen. It has to be decided. Its another battleground between plant and IT, but plants are in a better position to know.
Taking a holistic approach means addressing not only that who gets to say issue, but looking at all the ramifications of the implementation for deployment. Eriksen says this means understanding a number of things; for example, that security standards should be supported by the devices and that battery life is related to how the devices are used on the network. Properly designed, you can easily get a full shift off of one battery, but if you set up your device in such a way that the device doesnt know how to interact with the network in a battery-efficient way, youll run down your battery in no time, he says.
Another factor to consider is that most handhelds are based on Windows mobile software, but most wireless deployments are 802.11 standard-based technology. Taking a holistic approach to deployment means making sure these things work together. Its not to say you cant mix and match, says Eriksen, but you have to think about that before you put [the system] in. You should have the same group responsible for both.
So how close are we to beach blanket control? Not very.
Its not a driving demand, says NIs Jackson. Its by no means a game-changing technology. Well see slow adoption.
Transparas Saucier concurs, up to a point. The adoption is all over the map, he says. Its never going to be used for control purposes. Youre not going to be phoning in setpoints. Adoption is also a matter of country and culture, he says. In Japan its already there. Europe is in second place for cultural readiness. It will be 10 to 12 years in the U.S.
But then, look out. One good thing about the graying workforce is that the next generation will adopt it immediately, says Saucier.
Information delivery is where handhelds are coming into their own in process operations. In real-world work situations they have three major applications, says Robert Jackson, of product marketing at National Instruments.
At a large process manufacturer on the Gulf Coast, Apprion and systems integrator Rapid Solutions USA, a subsidiary of systems integrator Rapid Technologies in Calgary, Alberta, are implementing a system supporting all three of those goals. This company needs to increase its equipment uptime and produce more with less, explains John Lindsey, executive vice president at Rapid. The machinery needs to be kept up longer and operate accurately in order to produce better product and more of it. The company also needs to capture near-miss details of accidents that almost happen for reporting to OSHA. It also wants to use the data to reduce such incidents and their accompanying risk.
Basically the goal is to put accurate information into the hander of workers and replace sticky notes and pads. When people dont have the correct information, they get hurt, says Lindsey.
To achieve these goals, all the operations and maintenance engineers and capital projects staff are begin given handhelds. Real-time wirelss components can deliver everything on the PC out to the field workers, explains Lindsey. CMMS for parts and work orders, information from the ERP system, pump operation conditions, etc. Workers can document everything theyve done and feed it back to all the systems.
Power to the Power People
One of the early adopters of mobile reporting technologythe power generation industrycame as a surprise to Michael Saucier, founder and CEO of Transpara.
I thought power would be laggards, but deregulation has set these guys on fire, he says. Theyre fighting for their lives. So theyre using these [systems] big time. Some of them have a clear focus on fleet-wide performance management. Its not just a matter of making one physical plant work well, but coordinating all activites to optimize corporate goals. Theyre looking at assets as part of a portfolio instead of standalone. By having a transparent view of the data, people understand why these decisions are made. This doesnt just lead to better performance, but boosts morale because people can see why certain decisions are made.
Saucier says that half of his power clients dont use the mobile technologies, but the other half are putting them on all their mobile devices. It doesnt matter whether you use big screens or small screens, he says. The secret sauce is the composite nature of the data. How you deliver this transparency is role-dependent. Executives want to look at different things than the engineers, but the underlying data is all the same.