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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Rockwell Automation and Meriduim will jointly release a tablet app for Rockwell's Plant Baseline parts management system in May.

  • Siemens offers a WinCC/AddOn for its Alarm Control Center for fast and reliable alarms in the event of faults. http://tinyurl.com/4ovcy3y
  • Transpara's Visual KPI for mobile phones including Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, Palm Pre, Android phones, Blackberry and any mobile device with a modern browser. www.transpara.com.
  • Fred Bossard, president of Aurora, says that the iPhone/iPad is not a good solution for every situation, but that his application has many uses, especially in quality control situations. One of the companies pilot-testing Mobile Apps is a wholesale craft brewery. "It's worked out great there, although there was some apprehension going in. Now they can focus on making better beer, rather than on what their sensors are doing. They can compare what they did before with the next batch and really see what happens."

    Not So Fast

    Having said all that, bringing smart phones, laptops and tablets on to the factory floor also brings a load of problems that have to be addressed before they will live up to their potential. The Big Three are security, safety and ruggedness.

    Security is arguably of the most concern. As Sibley puts it, "Security needs to be much better. You can live with [a mobile device] not being ruggedized, but not with lack of security." 
    You can, of course, simply refuse to play the game says Honeywell's Stearns. This is the easiest, simplest way to handle the issue, and many companies do just that. No wireless. No Internet connection. No mobile devices. Period. 

    But that attitude may also be a last-century artifact. "Security by obscurity is a myth," says Cisco's Miller. "What most smart folks have figured out is that what we can do today costs less and is more secure than what we were doing previously."

    The good news is that while securing these mobile systems is not necessarily simple, it is also doable, and many of the best proven techniques are already out there.

    Ian Nimmo, president of User Centered Design Services (http://mycontrolroom.com) adds, "We've already fought the security battle. If companies have appropriate security in place for other things, it will also work for cell phones, netbooks, etc."

    Neil Peterson, senior manager, wireless marketing at Emerson Process Management (www.emersonprocess.com), says, "You can be as secure as you want to be. Security is highly configurable. [The question is] how much effort do you want to put into this."

    One problem is that no one solution fits all. "Every company is so far different because there are so many ways to skin the cat," says Michael Saucier, CEO of Transpara, maker of the Visual KPI application (www.transpara.com). Deciding your preferred method of cat-skinning can take a lot of time and effort.

    The other stumbling block for process operations is safety. As cool as they are, smart phones and tablets are not explosion-proof or non-incendive. This fact will limit—at least for now—the use of smart phones and tablets in the plant.

    But that limitation may be temporary. Mobile software will offer a way around some of these problems. "One of the things driving this is the common operating systems and the applications written for them," says Cisco's Miller. "It's going to be easy for developers to put them in a form factor that can be used." In other words, it's only a matter of time before somebody builds a mobile device useable in explosion-proof, non-incendive and corrosive environments.

    Even now there are workarounds. Bossard says that while there are places he wouldn't take an iPad, "We have a few options even in wash-down areas. It's not the most attractive option, but you could use a zipped plastic storage bag. You can also get very hard neoprene exterior skins with the inner part made of a softer rubber." And ultimately, he adds, "As long as the device isn't going to interfere with safety it should be OK in about 75% of applications."

    And there are always the ruggedized laptops. Panasonic has been selling its Toughbooks (www.panasonic.com/business/toughbook/laptop-computers.asp) for years. At least one model, the 29s, is Class 1, Div 2-certified.

    Stone Energy of Lafayette, La., equipped its offshore oil rig workers with Model 29s Toughbooks to give them real-time access to sensor information near the drill bit.

    Dave Kennedy, Stone's director of information technology, says, "Having the Toughbook connected wirelessly to information systems behind the drill bit facilitates real-time decision making. That information can translate to the accelerated completion of operations and huge cost savings."

    And not every plant-floor situation will require these ruggedized or specially certified units. "The consumer market is far bigger than the industrial market," observes Rockwell's  Brooks. "There's a huge cost benefit in using consumer devices because of the size of the market. If you have a $300 netbook with a virtual desktop accessing information off a server, and you drop it, you lose a $300 netbook. Compare that to the price of a Toughbook. There's going to be enormous pressure to use the consumer model. That doesn't override the safety issues, but it does create a pressure and a dynamic."

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