Mobility is relative. So are the technologies used to increase mobility in the workforce of plants and enterprises. The mobile worker was born the day the Internet-enabled laptop was first offered for sale (Figure 1). Combined with the cellular phone, workers could stay connected to their offices wherever they were. These tools helped managers and engineers, but weren't all that helpful for operators and maintenance technicians.
The process industries are generally thought to run about 10 years behind other industries in their adoption rate for new technologies. For example, the discrete industries, such as automobile manufacturing, have been using wireless sensors and even wirelessly powered robots for 10 years or more, and the process industries are barely over the early adopter phase for WirelessHART and ISA100 sensor networks. The entire world is blanketed with IEEE 802.11x wireless (Wi-Fi) networks, and process plants are still deciding where—or if—they will put one in the plant.
But things are changing and changing rapidly. "All of our customers are using smart phones and tablets to keep up with email and after-hours support," says Keith Jones, PE, of Prism Systems Inc., a system integrator in Mobile, Ala. "Everyone is more connected now to his or her job than ever in the past. The number of customers that are using specific apps written for their business is increasing fast."
Opto 22's vice president, Benson Hougland, chimes in. "The biggest benefit of mobile technologies is cost. Any time off-the-shelf, commercial technologies can be used in a plant setting, it's worth taking a look. For mobility (another huge benefit), nothing beats a smart phone or tablet that can be purposed for plant-floor applications. The mobile revolution is changing the way people do their jobs, interact with friends and family, and stay up to date with the latest news and events. Engineers, managers and technicians on the plant floor can absolutely benefit from this revolution in many of the same ways: Do their jobs better, interact with others in the plant, and always be aware of what's happening in a plant."
But, note that Hougland is talking about commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies. Not all of them are usable in the process plant environment.
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Or are they? Listen to Keith Jones. "Having a SCADA system in your pocket is invaluable. We all get calls about issues, but being able to [access a] VPN from your phone to look at diagnostics reduces the time an engineer or manager spends resolving issues, and can reduce downtime by reducing response time."
There has been continuous movement in the process industries toward mobility for years, especially in the asset management space. Rob McGreevy, Invensys' vice president for platforms and applications, believes that in that space, adoption of worker mobility technologies is well over 25%, but that most of the companies are early adopters. Even though Invensys' Intelatrac products have been used for years for asset management and are industrially hardened and designed for the process environment, users are mostly large companies in oil and gas and chemicals—and not all of them have "gone mobile." (Figure 2)
Diederick Mols, wireless solutions business leader from Honeywell Process Solutions, agrees. "I would estimate that 10% of our end users are using mobile worker technologies in one form or another (mobile operations, workflow automation, troubleshooting, maintenance, configuration and safety), and we expect that to double to around 20% after three years."
McGreevy adds, "The adoption rate of mobile technologies is moving way faster than before. Virtualization was fast, mobile will be faster."
Mols says, "Everyone benefits from being better informed, as well as being able to make better decisions and take actions quickly. [Mobile devices] help improve operator productivity and overall production efficiency. For example, better decision-making through mobile technology can help reduce turnaround and maintenance cycle times, and increase the asset availability index. These alone can save a typical refinery $945,000 per year."
That's big money, but there's still reluctance out there Beginning in 2011, Control began surveying our audience about how it uses mobile HMI technologies. In 2011, 19% of respondents said they had the capability of accessing their HMI from anywhere; 42% said they used a remote or portable HMI operator interface. About 7.5% indicated that they used a smart phone or cell phone to interface with the control systems and see alarms. In 2013, the numbers remained approximately the same, with 41% using a remote or portable HMI operator interface, and 7.1% indicating that they use a smart phone or tablet to interface with their control system.
What's the Hang-Up?
So why the foot-dragging? "The biggest limitation is the absence of low-cost rugged, hazardous zone-rated wireless computing devices. Pricing of these devices will drop only when numbers go up," Mols adds.
The other big limitation is the learning curve. Many of these devices either use proprietary software or versions of Windows with stripped down functionality.
"But there are pockets of innovators exploring new technologies," McGreevy said. "And remember, these are major companies with strong business cases for mobility. They are changing the way people operate. For example, one of our customers has a lot of remote wells in the southeast. The mobile technologies allow an assessment of any problems remotely, which saves a lot of windshield time."
In fact, that excessive "windshield time" is just what Union Township in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., faced. The township's water distribution and sewer collection systems cover 28 mi2 (72 km2), and provide services to about 10,000 residents. The system is large and the staff is small. Until recently, they found themselves with a pickup-truck SCADA system—that is, somebody got into a truck and went out to a pumping station or well or to the water treatment plant and looked at what was going on and made whatever changes necessary. With the price of fuel and the limitations on headcount because of the economy, all this windshield time was simply unsupportable.
The obvious thing to do was to implement a remote monitoring system, and since most of the locations to be monitored were running with PCs and HMI software already, it was straightforward to install remote desktop software to view and operate the PCs. The remote desktop solution wasn't optimal, according to wastewater treatment plant superintendent Michael Dearing and chief water operator Shaun McBride. It required a PC running HMI software at every remote location and wasn't compatible with smart phones or tablets.
Opto22 produced most of the industrial PCs in the field for the township, and when Opto22 introduced its new server-based universal HMI tool, groov, Dearing and McBride decided to try it and see what it could do. "Considering the limited time we had between other projects," McBride said, "we were surprised that we were up and running so quickly."
The groov interface provides equipment status and process sensor readings from every station, and can be used on any device capable of displaying a modern browser, such as iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets—even a Kindle Fire. Such an empowered phone or tablet could cost less than $500 (instead of the several thousand dollars a conventional device costs). Similar to Inductive Automation's marketplace, the groov app is bringing the benefits of mobile technologies to smaller and smaller customers.
"We monitor flows, power consumption and tank levels," Dearing says. The township also monitors dissolved oxygen, chlorine residual, pH and turbidity throughout the system.
Another company that moved to groov is New Enterprise Stone and Lime Co., Inc. in Roaring Spring, Pa., which implemented a complete, groov-based pump control system. "We quickly built a web-based interface for the pump control system," says automation manager Ashley Fleck. The groov interface shows key information like operational status, current draw, flow rate and other variables—and it does so on any smart device thanks to automatic scaling and re-sizing for the appropriate format.
The smart phone and tablet revolution has taken the world by storm. Millions of the devices have been sold. Companies have issued iPads or other tablets to their executives instead of laptops. Most people have a smart phone. Some have two. It is instructive to look at the reason for the success of the smart phone and tablet market. The odds are pretty good that many of those 7.1% of smart phone and tablet users from our survey that interface with their control systems are part of the growing bring your own device (BYOD) movement.
There are good reasons why using your smart phone for work in the control space makes sense. First, the hardware is relatively inexpensive. The most equipped iPad you can buy costs around $1000. Many tablets cost significantly less.
Second, the software that comes with smart phones and tablets—the "apps"—are very inexpensive. A temperature measurement app from Apple's App Store might cost less than $5, not $500. We have started to see this in the process environment from companies such as Inductive Automation, which launched an "app store" for its flagship product, Ignition, earlier this year. You buy the base software and only the modules (apps) you need.
Third, apps are designed to have little or no learning curve difficulties. Simple, effective and inexpensive, apps have pushed into the process environment.
Companies have had varying responses to the BYOD movement. It has had much better reception in the office environment than in the plant. This is largely because companies want to maintain control over their intellectual property, and don't want it walking out of the plant on somebody's iPad, but also because these devices have not been industrially hardened for use in the plant environment. Especially problematic are plants with hazardous area classification environments.
When the iPad first came out, I called Apple and talked to a marketing executive about whether Apple had any interest in making one version of the device that could be certified for hazardous areas. The executive laughed and asked me how many million devices like that Apple could sell. Clearly, there was no thought of producing industrial devices.
But ever since the first smart phones and tablets went on sale, people have been taking them into plants whether they had permission or not.
"It's an inevitability," McGreevy says. In fact, Invensys introduced Wonderware InTouch Access Anywhere shortly after I talked to McGreevy. InTouch Access Anywhere is a web browser-based version of Wonderware's flagship HMI software that can connect to other InTouch applications "anytime, from anywhere, using any mobile device, including Microsoft Surface tablets, iPads, iPhones, Android devices and others," McGreevy told me. (Figure 3)
The adoption curve for using COTS smart phones and tablets is accelerating wildly. In areas that don't require special purpose hazardous area devices, the use of smart phones and tablets is ubiquitous. Keith Jones reports, "Now, we're developing applications that monitor equipment and processes from personal phones. It is currently a small percentage of customers that are actively developing applications, but the number of customers talking about doing so is impressive. In the next few years, we expect to see a drastic increase in our iOS development for industrial clients."
The other thing we're seeing is the use of mobility technologies by smaller companies than could use them previously. If you have to buy Motorola, other hardened devices or Panasonic Toughbooks, you can't get them for everyone. And, the natural perversity of the universe says that the operator who does not have a mobile device is the one who is out in the field with really strong need of one. Companies are now looking at how to equip all of their employees with smart devices, not just a few.
But when they do, they'll still have to make sure that the devices can be used in specific areas in the plant. Even wastewater treatment systems have areas which are designated hazardous areas, such as basement-located pump rooms or chemical storage rooms.
Niches to the Rescue!
Many people are familiar with Otterbox, whose Armor series of cases for smart phones can be supplied waterproof, dustproof and even, to a certain extent, crush-proof.
The Samsung GS4 is being supplied with a native enclosure that is waterproof and dustproof.
Griffin Technology's Survivor cases are "tested and certified to meet or exceed U.S. Department of Defense Standard 810F," according to the company's website. Griffin's claims that its Survivor military-duty case is designed from the inside out to protect an iPad from extreme conditions—dirt, sand, rain, shock, vibration and a host of other environmental factors. The website's data indicates that the Survivor case is independently tested and verified to meet or exceed environmental testing standards for blown rain, blown dust and grit, vibration, shock, temperature and humidity.
So, you can certainly have industrially hardened COTS smartphones and tablets. But that's not enough for the process industries.
Honeywell's Mols has an idea. "Another option could be to develop and deploy a secondary, ruggedized, hazardous zone-rated enclosure that could be zipped or wrapped around a readily available device, such as an iPad."
And voilà! A company in Houston called Xciel has developed a methodology that Apple supports, according to business development manager Xavier Balourdet, for taking a standard iPad, iPad Mini or iPhone and making it usable in a hazardous area (Figure 4).
Balourdet notes, "The XCiPad in an aluminum case and the XCRiPad in a rubber and nylon case will allow you to use your iPad in a Class 1, Divison 2/ATEX Zone 2 area. These devices are certified for use in Class 1, Div 2, Group A-D while continuing to allow operators to use it the same way they would ordinarily. We have patents pending on the creation of Class 1, Division 2/Zone 2 iPads."
We're talking useful here. Now we can see why Mols and McGreevy believe that the adoption curve of mobile technologies is about to take a quick, sharp, upward turn.
But What About the Control Room?
If everybody in the plant has smart phones and tablets, and is highly connected wherever they are, is there still a need for a control room?
Honeywell's Mols said, "We expect control rooms to become more centralized as time goes on, with single control rooms increasingly responsible for operating a greater number of assets and processes.
"It's possible the control room will be emptier during normal operational practices," Mols continued, "with operators in the plant doing meaningful production, observational or maintenance tasks, while staying informed in real time through their mobile computing devices. The control room will certainly be manned during special production events, shift hand-overs or emergencies. Mobile operators will be better equipped to help staff make better decisions, but that won't diminish the importance of the control room."
Invensys' McGreevy agrees. "Control rooms will always have a purpose, but mobility technologies can extend it beyond the four walls. We can get back to Hewlett and Packard's ‘management by walking around' concept, and get the operators up and out of their chairs into the plant."
Prism's Keith Johnson says, "This is not going away anytime soon. A central control room is still a must for the process industries. We will see capability enhanced with mobile devices, but there is too much risk associated with not having a person plugged into critical process parameters and alarms. Multiple monitors and large displays are important here."
And What About Security?
Keith Jones reminds us, "Security is the biggest concern and potential limitation of mobile worker technologies. But an entire library of new products is emerging to address securing industrial networks. We as engineers must educate ourselves on the risks and the available security solutions."
That includes the risk of having a mobile device lost or stolen, not just hacked or compromised. McGreevy reminds us that wireless location services are not only for locating personnel in an emergency. "We can use proximity-based smart devices in two ways. We can tie accessibility to location and to specific people. So, for example, an engineer or operator outside the plant only has access to some functions, while inside the plant, the same engineer with the same smart device has access to more, or even all the functions of the control system or asset management system."
In just the same way that the PC and Windows was a complete game changer in the process industries, leading in less than 10 years to a near-complete abandonment of proprietary "big iron" control systems, it sure looks like mobility technologies are going to extend that trend to a complete change in the way plants are operated. By decentralizing control functions and monitoring, we can have truly "distributed control systems" after all.