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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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.

BYOD?

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.

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