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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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.

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