Mobility rises above

Spurred by the freedom granted by earlier mobility tools, many process users are further increasing their range with more diverse solutions—and even taking flight.

By Jim Montague

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If you can't see the forest for all the trees, it's time get up above those trees.

Because the need to know what's going on in process applications always demands more data and finer resolution from more places, one useful indicator just sparks the desire for more. That's why, after process controls engineers and other plant-floor professionals gain mobile tools and software, they still want to accelerate and diversify their capabilities even further, and extend them to new locations and applications.

"We had one user with a telescope pointed at a level instrument on an elevated water tower across town, which he used regularly until we added a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system and radio," says Robert Touchton, chief design officer at MR Systems, a CSIA-certified system integrator in Norcross, Ga. "He even kept the telescope for awhile during the transition period."

Grant LeSueur, director of software management and products at Schneider Electric, adds that, "For reasons of safety and comfort, process control and DCS operators are traditionally reluctant to leave their control rooms, but they've been using remote and mobile device for 20 years to do operations rounds, gather data, conduct inspections, perform maintenance and control field devices. So, while mobility isn't new, the barrier to entry has been how to carry data in and out hazardous areas. However, in the past five years, there's been a huge increase in the choice of protected mobile devices they can use in these areas that also support Android OS, iOS or Windows operating systems, and link to Internet protocol (IP) communications and cloud-based computing services. Now, the plant-floor can take the lead from the consumer side, support how their workforce wants to use these pervasive mobile devices, but still create an infrastructure in which they can do it securely and safely."

Similarly, when human-machine interfaces (HMI) and SCADA systems gained Ethernet and Internet networking that let them move out of the traditional control room, and bring data in and send instructions out via handheld interfaces, tablet PCs and smart phones, it was logical and probably inevitable that they'd keep going. Recently, they've been going beyond fixed wireless devices to take to the skies with multi-rotor drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which are typically equipped with cameras, video recorders, laser or radar measuring instruments, and other support devices.

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"We use drones because they can give us more information about sites," says MR's Touchton. "We'd already been doing 3D renderings of facilities, but drones can add a lot of data because many water/wastewater plants don't have any aerial pictures, which can help them orient and place equipment during design and installation, or show, for example, where special mounting brackets need to be installed."

Information on the move

In the past, if the proverbial mountain of data couldn't come to its users, then they'd have to go to the information. However, recent mobility solutions are loosening the constraints of that old reality, and just as often putting "wheels" on data and bringing data back to users.

"Mobility can be transformative because it gives more data to the right individuals, brings in transparency and visibility to show what's going on, lets managers see from a high level how efficiently their operations and facilities are running, and lets users interact with each other more effectively," says John Lee, manager of the Manufacturing Systems and Solutions division at Matrix Technologies, a CSIA-certified system integrator, this time in Maumee, Ohio. "Mobility can assist maintenance rounds, data collection and commissioning. Where users previously gathered information on Excel spreadsheets, and sampled, audited and validated it, mobile devices let them get collect and analyze data much closer to real-time for almost immediate feedback and distribution to other users. In one large refinery where we worked with thousands of instruments, mobility enabled better maintenance accuracy, less errors due to manual entry, and immediate and thorough data tracking."

To aid these efforts, Lee reports that Matrix produces software for tablet PCs and other mobile tools that queries operators for their one- or four-hour checks, data reads and log entries for their processes, and asks dynamic questions based on the different shifts peculiar to each application. "As production workflows get more digitized, mobility can help enforce them, and make sure that standardized, required steps and action sequences are performed, tracked and followed up," he adds. "This also gives users better analytics about operations per day, overall process performance, or how long future installations or other changes will take."

Eric Lauber, project engineer at Matrix, adds that mobile interfaces also make it easier for users to employ metadata—or information about other data collections—to improve their decisions. "Previously, we might know how many process inspections were made for scheduling and staffing," he says. "But now, we access central data repositories with mobile devices, put that data into historical and future contexts, compare the performance of different sequences and teams, gain insights and find bottlenecks we couldn't expect to know about before, and make adjustments for individual applications and clients."

Mariana Dionisio, product manager for DeltaV Mobile at Emerson Automation Solutions, adds that, "From surveying our end users, about half use mobile devices to access process or asset data, and that’s why we’ve developed mobile solutions, including apps for viewing data for operations, reliability and lifecycle health. Just this past month, we introduced DeltaV Mobile that gives users read-only access to operations data. It leverages existing DeltaV configurations to securely provide the same data that's viewable on operator workstations, such as alarms, real-time data, historical trends and more, but displayed on mobile screens. Getting data securely 24/7 with DeltaV Mobile on any mobile device lets users anticipate changes, become aware of, and respond faster to abnormal situations. Users may also have expertise gaps onsite, and DeltaV Mobile via VPN or WiFi lets them connect engineers and operators from multiple sites with remote experts to close those gaps and improve decision making."

HMIs everywhere

Not surprisingly, mobility these days often means proliferating interfaces in new sizes and formats, putting more cameras, monitors and eyeballs in the field or close to it, and sometimes supplementing displays with virtual- and/or augmented-reality overlays containing useful support information.

To manage increasing demands on their water/wastewater, transportation, environmental and renewable power systems more efficiently, Carson City Public Works recently deployed several mobile and virtualization technologies. The utility purifies and delivers more than 22 million gallons per day, recycles 6.9 million gallons of wastewater per day, controls solar plants that generate 748,000 kwh per year, and manages the municipality's truck fleet and traffic signals.

New technologies adopted include iPads and smart phones that allow the utility's operators and managers to increase their remote monitoring capabilities across three Nevada counties. The devices were integrated with Wonderware SCADA software that Carson City has used since 1992, and with its Wonderware InTouch HMI software, both from Schneider Electric. Remote operations were brought to the mobile interfaces by implementing Wonderware Mobile Reporting application with SmartGlance software, which makes their information, key performance indicators (KPIs) and Wonderware Historian data easy to read and manipulate using smart phone screen navigation (Figure 1).

“SmartGlance gives our senior staff instant access to KPIs and critical process information on their iPads and smart phones, which greatly increases situational awareness and allows us to be more efficient,” says Darren Schulz, deputy director at Carson City Public Works.

James Jacklett, electrical/signal supervisor at Carson City Public Works, adds that, "Integrating with Wonderware also gives us real-time status indications, alarm notifications and communications historization for effective monitoring of our transportation, power and water systems,  providing better operational readiness.”

So far, Schulz and Jacklett add their Wonderware-enabled iPads and smart phones have reduced operations staff hours by 15% due to drive-time savings, and allowed the department's more than 120 staffers to transition their workweek schedules from five eight-hour days to four ten-hour days.

Likewise, when Prima Frutta in Linden, Calif., sought to revamp its cherry production line in 2015 to make it the world's largest by increasing throughput 50% without increasing staff, it enlisted Industrial Automation Group (IAG), a CSIA-certified system integrator in Modesto, Calif., to help with the upgrade and expand its existing implementation of Ignition SCADA software from Inductive Automation to the new cherry line. Ignition lets Prima Frutta to share line data with 10 managers and 900 workers via more than 120 screens measuring 27, 32 or 60 inches, which are scattered strategically throughout the facility.

“Every second counts, so it's very important to provide data to our staff on the plant floor,” says Tom Augello, production manager at Prima Frutta. “If a change is coming, whether it’s in size, quality or variety, our people have a very short time to react, so we put that information up, flash alerts or use different colors to make sure everyone sees it. The large productivity increase we’ve seen with Ignition is from these added screens.”

Beyond its larger, fixed monitors, Prima Frutta uses 10 tablet PCs from Dell to directly control the cheery line. The tablets have stationary holders, but they can also be carried around the plant for full SCADA with Ignition and networking via four wireless access points from Moxa.

Jason Kieffer, project manager at IAG, reports that Prima Frutta could have used with industrially hardened tablet PCs, but chose less costly, consumer-grade tablets because they’re easy to replace if needed, and were easy to implement with Ignition. IAG also mimicked Prima Frutta's existing servers by building a digital twin of them at IAG's office, which let the integrator develop the new application in its native environment, and accelerated its installation and accuracy. “It was so quick. Within two hours of pulling a tablet out of the box, we were running the application on it," says Kieffer. "We were really surprised at how quickly it went.”

Greg Sinigaglia, production manager at Prima Frutta, confirmed that using Ignition on the tablets and larger monitors saves time and money. “Let’s take grading of the fruit as an example,” says Sinigaglia. “Before, we had to walk down and look at the quality and see what the sorters were doing. Now, with Ignition, we have all this information displayed on screens. There’s no more running around from spot to spot.”

Michael Kanellos, technical analyst at OSIsoft, adds, "Let’s face it, everyone is a mobile employee these days, and managers want to check on the status of operations remotely. With mobility, technicians can update information and add pictures with their smart phones and upload them, so everyone can see them. In addition, augmented reality and multimedia will accelerate the market even more. For example, we created a demo with National Instruments, PTC and Flowserve that allows users to pull up CAD drawings of components and virtual gauges of parameters, such as temperature and speed. It’s a new way of looking at data that wasn’t possible before. When you can give your field technicians a better way to understand and use their critical data, companies are going to adopt it."

Simplicity = usability

Just like a hiker with a lighter backpack, mobility in process facilities is greatly aided by newer tools that are simpler and lighter, which allows them to be used more frequently. For instance, Kice Industries in Wichita, Kan., designs and builds industrial air systems for the flour milling, biofuels, food and energy industries, and staff in its system integration division always welcome better ways to migrate large distributed control systems (DCS), building panels, and implementing numerous valves, instruments and other components.  

"We just installed a good-sized biofuel project with 600-700 instruments and valves and expanded another biofuel plant with 1,200-1,400 instruments and valves, and we thought there had to be a better way than the outdated, 15-pound, $6,000-$7,000 handheld we'd been using to program, test and commission HART valves, check instruments and do loop checks," says Peter Love, senior systems engineer for automation at Kice. "Eventually, we came across DevComDroid smart device communicator from ProComSol, which costs $1,000-$2,000, and includes a Bluetooth HART modem and software for doing complete HART device configurations with an Android smart phone."

DevComDroid uses registered device description (DD) files from the FieldComm Group for complete access to all features of a HART device. All members of Kice's onsite teams can use it, including electricians, field commissioning staff and plant DCS operators.

"The main advantage for everyone is that DevComDroid is a lot less weight because all we're carrying is an Android smart phone and the 2 x 3 x 3 in. modem in our pockets. This portability means we can have it with us all the time, and use it more often," explains Love. "Also, the battery on the old communicator only lasted two or three hours, so we usually had to haul a spare around. DevComDroid lasts as long as our smart phone battery, which is usually all day. The modem also has wire leads that allow it to be clipped to a scissor lift, or otherwise brought close to an instrument, while we make changes from a safe distance. With the old communicator, we'd have to be right at the device."

Beyond the benefit that HART data appears the same on a smart phone as it does on the older communicator, Love adds it's easier to apply software updates to DevComDroid and store information by just plugging in the smart phone. "A multivariable flow transmitter has a commissioning process, so you have to backup data from the communicator to a PC. However, most communicators have been limited in how much configuration data they could store—maybe 100 procedures—so active-stop and storage operations were needed to free space," says Love. "With smart phones and tablet PCs, we have far more data storage available, and transfers are easier to file to servers, other PCs and the cloud. Plus, we can backup configurations, store them as PDF documents, and email them. With the old communicator, we also had to deal with complex file formats and proprietary software to handle configurations.

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