The Mobile Worker -- There Are 100 Apps for That!

There Are Lots of Mobile Worker Tools, and They're Allowing Even the Smallest Companies to Have All the Benefits of Mobility

By Walt Boyes

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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.

Read also: The Glory of COTS! Check this out--- Windows CE, DOS and LINUX, take your pick for OS!

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."

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