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Okay, people, take out your notebooks and write down this phrase: "The consumerization of workplace tools." Everyone from the CEO to the technician is seeing the ease, benefits and, yes, fun of using mobile tools in their personal lives, and they're wondering why, when they can carry around a phone, a camera and hundreds of tunes, videos, games and books all in one device in their pockets, they have to slog through a 3-inch stack of spreadsheets, lug around a 5-pound laptop or be tethered to a desktop computer or a control room console to get to the data they need at work.It's a question that isn't going to go away. Research group International Data Corp (IDC) predicts that the global mobile workforce will increase to over 1 billion workers in 2011, totaling 30% of the workforce worldwide. In the United States, numbers are higher still. A total of 70% of the American workforce will be mobile by 2012. If that sounds like a lot, remember that the survey defines "mobile worker"as everyone from the iconic "road warrior" to the contract worker on another company's site to mobile field workers.
Chris Stearns, senior product manager at Honeywell Process Solutions, says, "We're still in the early adopter phase, but there's momentum here, and it's not going to slow down."
The fact is, says Paul Brooks, business development manager for the networking business at Rockwell Automation (www.rockwellautomation.com), during a phone interview conducted, by the way, on a VoIP connection between Chicago and Brussels, "We are all mobile workers—both the CEO and the technician. You can't constrain where individual workers are going to want information and what information they want to get. And the most important thing is that they want information where they are rather than move to where the information is."
It's not just the perennial attraction to the new and shiny pushing these tools into the process automation workspace. The usual suspects are all there: the drive to do more with fewer workers; the aging workforce and the correlative need to transfer its years of hard-won knowledge to less experienced workers and get them up to speed quickly; globalization that spreads facilities around the world; vital assets and operations in remote locations; and, above all, the demand for greater efficiency and productivity."If we have non-productive time, and the workers are supposed to be putting us back in business, they need access to information," says Mark Miller, director of solution sales for Cisco's Energy Operation Division (www.cisco.com). Ideally, technicians will have access to that information where they are—in front of the machine—not back in the control room or buried in a stack spreadsheets somewhere.
"One thing companies need is improved visibility for edge customers—those out in the process plants," says Kevin Davenport, global solutions manager for industrial automation at Cisco. "Improved decision-making in those places and improved efficiency for field workers [is crucial]."
Charlie Mohrmann, Director of Product Marketing and Strategy, Invensys Operations Management, (www.global.wonderware.com) adds, "Good technology does one or both of these things: Improve a process or sustain it. The two uses with the best ROI are building a high-reliability organization and process improvement. Mobility tools can have a very high payback. Some of these can get payback in six months."
Already the early adopters are out there trying things out in the field. (See Dan Hebert's "Wireless Workers Unchained," Control, April 2010). Vendors large and small are lining up with large-scale solutions and simple apps to access everything from KPIs to simulations via a cell phone or tablet. Others are offering complex arrays of collaboration enablers, including audio, video, phone and Internet conferencing, all predicated on the notion that no meeting requires all the participants to be in the same room—or even on the same continent—at the same time. Hardware vendors are also stepping up with everything from ruggedized phones and laptops to Internet-enabled video cameras.
Some companies are experimenting, not just with mobile apps in general, but with the iPad in particular. Jeff Sibley, a control engineer at the Dow Chemical Co. in Freeport, Texas, and a member of the Siemens Users Advisory Board, is part of a group at Dow researching the feasibility of using of iPads in Dow's research and development unit.
"We have put all manuals and project documents on them. We also tried hooking them up to a wireless router strictly for commissioning." Sibley says.
Dow's researchers are also experimenting with instructing the control system remotely through the iPad. "Say you have one guy at the operator station telling the guy at the valve to move it. What we're hoping to do is have that one guy move the valve remotely," he says. "We're very much still in the research phase. The software is still wonky."
He also adds that, at Dow, the iPads may be limited to the R& D department. "Project notes and commissioning documents, etc. will be the first use. Also PDFs and spreadsheets. [You can put] lots and lots of information in a very portable form, and they're more convenient than a netbook."
Sibley adds the advantage of the iPad or other tablet over the smart phone is its size. "The problem with the iPhone is that it's small. Things are easier to read on a tablet," he says.