Beach Blanket Control

“PlantBerries” Won’t Control Processes Any Time Soon, but They Do Break the Link Between Many Workers and Their Control Rooms

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An industrial wireless network is essential for any sort of “PlantBerry” reporting, Lambright adds. “Smart phones and PDAs rely on cellular networks. You can’t tie that into a system of record, so you have to create a wireless network that’s secure and high-performance, and it’s unlikely that’s going to be cellular. It’s going to be Wi-Max or 802.11 or some standard designed for the purpose. You’re going to want to create a dedicated network, so you’re 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 Motorola’s Eriksen. “We’re 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 conflict—or at least minimize its negative effects—is to take a holistic view, says Eriksen.

“Too many companies will deploy wireless and handhelds separately. Then they find out they’re not as compatible as they thought,” he says. “We’ve seen too many cases where one group puts in wireless, and another group puts in handhelds, and they’re 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. “Who’s going to own 3.5?” asks Eriksen. “It has to be decided. It’s 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 doesn’t know how to interact with the network in a battery-efficient way, you’ll 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. “It’s not to say you can’t 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.

“It’s not a driving demand,” says NI’s Jackson. “It’s by no means a game-changing technology. We’ll see slow adoption.”

Transpara’s Saucier concurs, up to a point. “The adoption is all over the map,” he says. “It’s never going to be used for control purposes. You’re not going to be phoning in setpoints.” Adoption is also a matter of country and culture, he says. “In Japan it’s 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.

Three Uses

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.

  • Maintenance and work order management. In many scenarios. maintenance has to be performed in a given order and documented. In these cases, an interface to a PDA or laptop gives workers the files they need and the capability to document their work.
  • Portable measurement. Jackson says this is the most technically challenging application, the problem being that handhelds do not have a standard high-speed interface to high-speed I/O. Many handhelds are Windows CE-based, making it harder to develop the necessary drivers for them. Specific vertical hardware and software are needed to address requirements in this market. 
  • Alarm and system monitoring. Here is where much of the use of handhelds—including cell phones and “PlantBerries”—is garnering attention. Customers take PLC-based systems with open communications protocols and design or buy software that enables the handhelds as remote monitoring systems, sending notifications via email or presenting control information in formats that work on these devices.

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 don’t 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 they’ve done and feed it back to all the systems.”

Power to the Power People

One of the early adopters of mobile reporting technology—the power generation industry—came 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. “They’re fighting for their lives. So they’re using these [systems] big time. Some of them have a clear focus on fleet-wide performance management. It’s not just a matter of making one physical plant work well, but coordinating all activites to optimize corporate goals. They’re 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 doesn’t 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 don’t use the mobile technologies, but the other half are putting them on all their mobile devices. “It doesn’t 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.”

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