Information Wants to Be Everywhere

How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down at the Plant Now That They Got an iPad for Christmas?

By Nancy Bartels

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"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."

Early Experiments

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.

There's an App for That

Aurora Industrial Automation, (www.aurora-ia.com) a system integrator in Portland, Ore., has developed Aurora Mobile Apps, an Apple iPad/iPhone application that gives users real-time access to plant-floor data through Rockwell Automation's FactoryTalk View, ViewPoint and VantagePoint software. Using Mobile Apps, FactoryTalk VantagePoint users can see pertinent KPIs wherever they are. Plant-floor workers working off an iPad can see the same information they would see via the FactoryTalk View application on their PC or inline HMIs.

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