Beach Blanket Control

July 16, 2008
“PlantBerries” Won’t Control Processes Any Time Soon, but They Do Break the Link Between Many Workers and Their Control Rooms

By Nancy Bartels, Managing Editor

You’ve seen those commercials for the high-end cell phones and wireless computers singing the siren song of a disconnected workplace: the tan fella in swimming trunks kicked back in a deckchair, umbrella drink in hand, enjoying the lake view, doing deals on his wireless laptop, or at the campfire at dusk with the sun setting behind the mountain, checking his email prior to a peaceful night in the wilderness.

What the ads don’t show is what happens to the laptop when he spills that umbrella drink into his keyboard; nor do they point out that at the campfire in the wilderness, the nearest cell tower is probably 200 miles away, and the reception on that expensive wonder phone is zip. Nor do the ads discuss the fate of such a phone dropped out of a canoe or down a 50-ft. ravine.

Don’t even think about what would happen to such a device on the factory floor.

So is this talk of turning popular handheld, mobile devices from the consumer world into vital factory tools just so much marketing bushwa? Not exactly. 

Lief Eriksen, director of industry solutions for Motorola ( says, “Nobody is doing control with a handheld device on a wireless network, and I would bet that won’t happen for a long time.” And few would argue with him.

That said, as wireless technology improves, reporting software becomes more sophisticated and adapted to multiple platforms, and the advantages of remote operation become clearer, disconnecting the operators and engineers from their big-screen control rooms and putting them nearer the action becomes more doable and appealing. The “PlantBerry” or some other handheld mobile devices will, and in some cases already have, become just one more item in the process engineer or operator’s toolbox.

Fantasy visions of poolside work aside, companies can get serious benefits and ROI by taking advantage of various handheld, wireless devices for gathering and reporting data around the facility. National Grid, London, the largest utility in the U.K. and the second largest in the U.S., following its acquisition of KeySpan Energy, deployed a combination of OSIsoft’s PI System and Transpara’s Visual KPI software to aggregate data from multiple, existing data sources to deliver real-time composite information to employee’s cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDA). The system, deployed in one of its state-side facilities, is role-based, delivering information to people as varied as gas turbine users, energy traders, executives in different business areas, and people in engineering, operations and environmental control.

National Grid realized ROI in less than six months and gained a 2% reduction in overtime, a 2% technician/operation productivity gain, and $5,000 to $10,000 saving per environmental incident avoided.

In another application, CSIA-certified systems integrator Data Science Automation in Pittsburgh, Pa., developed a mercury emissions sampling system to help a coal-fired power plant meet government regulatory reporting requirements. Key to the application was linking a National Instruments’ (NI) Compact FieldPoint PAC with a wireless communications interface on a PDA. The PDA provides all the status displays and operator interactions. The system saves data to the CompactFlash drive and broadcasts data over an RS 485 serial connection to a data logger. All control and programming of the PAC, as well as all user feedback, is through a wireless connection running the NI LabView PDA module. [For more details on this application, see Dan Hebert’s “Technically Speaking” column, “PACs for Communications and Data Handling.” Listen to the podcast of the column.]

Not So Fast

So maybe there’s something to talk about here, but first a little perspective. This reporting of activities and gathering data on handheld devices is only a small part of much bigger trends that have been seeping slowly through the process industries for a number of years. These are the conquest of the factory floor by PCs, the following growth of PC-based software for industrial tasks, and the growth of open communications protocols, says Robert Jackson, in product marketing at NI. 

To get a picture of where handhelds fit in this scheme, Jackson harks back to the evolution of the industrial PC (IPC), which he sees as developing in two directions. “One is handheld devices. Things have become more portable,” he says. “But that’s not where the core of the IPC market has evolved.”

That evolution took place as Windows-based PCs replaced older, proprietary systems. Following that, “the traditional PC evolved into the rugged boxed PC,” says Jackson. That rugged PC, in turn, is morphing into so many shapes that it becomes hard to tell what an IPC really is any more. [See Jim Montague’s “Industrial PCs Take New Forms for New Jobs.” ]

At the same time, the PLC has evolved into the PAC. “What happened is that we cherry-picked features we wanted from PCs—open communication protocols, such as 802.11, standard Ethernet on the factory floor connected to the PAC,” says Jackson. “The second thing that evolved was processing speed. Now PACs are seeing high-end processors being deployed. This is where industrial PCs are going—a combination of open communication, increased processing speed and high-speed I/O.”

Getting all the information out of that more powerful PC or PAC to where it needs to be in as near real time as possible is the premise behind bringing handheld communications devices to the factory floor and more remote locations.

“What people find so attractive is the real-time component,” says John Lindsey, executive vice president at Rapid Solutions USA, a subsidiary of systems integrator Rapid Technologies in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “Real-time capability puts all the information in the hands of the workers, and gives them decision-making capabilities. The goal is to enable them to work in real time on non-DCS equipment. It saves time, and more important, it stops them from making poor decisions in the field.”

That said, a handheld device isn’t meant to be a substitute for desktop computers or control room SCADA/HMI systems, says Michael Saucier, founder and CEO of Transpara. “Handheld devices augment the desktop and give users access to key decision-support systems in a way they haven’t had it before. They provide a new use case for existing information. It’s not a new system, but it’s taking what you already have and using it more efficiently.”

Cutting the Cord

The main driver and basic supporting technology for pushing handheld devices onto the factory floor and out into the field is wireless. Once the cord between the computer and reporting devices literally is cut, any device, from a ruggedized laptop to a tablet PC to a smart cell phone, becomes a candidate for a suitable information-delivery device, and more than ever, successful process manufacturing is all about access to information, not just in the control room, but everywhere and anywhere.

“There’s been an enormous amount of downsizing. Each person is taking on more roles and responsibility,” says Saucier. “People are at their desks much less than they used to be. They’re going places, meeting people, doing stuff. They’re wearing four and five hats and have to switch quickly. There’s almost no way to do all that if people are chained to their desks, yet they’re tethered to the responsibility [for the information on their PCs].”

In short, handhelds equipped with the supporting software are “enabling an ever-thinning workforce to do more with less time spent going back to central control room for no reason. No making phone calls when all you have to do was look at a screen,” says Saucier.

Getting Practical

What about the practical aspects of making a remote access system work? First, perhaps surprisingly, not every instance of a remote device needs to be ruggedized. The natural tendency is to think all these devices should be, says Jackson, but it all depends on exactly what you’re using the device for.

“For a portable measuring system that one guy is carrying around, you can buy a single, high-end, ruggedized, high-performance device,” says Jackson, adding the caveat that ruggedization always adds size, weight and cost.

But if you’re getting alarms on your cell phone, it’s a different matter. Remember that it’s your cell phone, advises Jackson. “Its first purpose is to make calls. Making it ruggedized makes it less useful for its core purpose. The open communication protocols that PACs use allow the user to deploy standard, off-the-shelf hardware—smart phones, PDAs, Toughbooks. They function well because they’re designed to be consumer devices. The idea is to enable people to see what’s on that standard screen. If you’re just trying to get alarms, a simpler, lower-cost, more readily usable device is better.”  

Still, there are places where ruggedization is essential. “You can’t take a run-of-the-mill BlackBerry into the refinery or factory. Even the Coca-Cola delivery guy uses a reggedized computer, because they get dropped, etc. If you bring them into a refinery, they have to be certified to work in hazardous areas,” reminds Motorola’s Eriksen. “In some cases they have to be IS-certified.”

That, of course, increases the cost of deployment, sometimes by an order of magnitude more than a consumer-grade device. But there are compromise approaches.

“You can get something that’s not much more than a commercial PDA or smart phone. It’s what we call ‘durable.’ It’s not fully ruggedized, but it will last longer than a consumer-grade model. But here’s the thing. Let’s assume you don’t really care if it breaks. Studies say that the total cost of ownership of a ruggedized device will still be less because you’re going to get four or five years out of it, compared to a year or year and a half even if it doesn’t break. One of the issues with a consumer model is that they get upgraded every 18 months.”

That upgrade cycle is an important consideration for manufacturers considering rolling out handhelds to employees. They don’t want to have to replace them every 18 months. Furthermore, ruggedized devices all have replaceable batteries—unlike many consumer models.

In the end, says Jackson, “The PDA is an added bell and whistle. It’s not a substitute for a standard SCADA/HMI. Now it’s hard to justify the cost of the PDA for all operators, but when the price keeps coming down, that becomes less of a disadvantage.”


While real-time access to information for decision-making is the added-value carrot being dangled in front of potential customers, it’s important to remember that since many of the applications of handhelds in process operations have to do with recordkeeping and documentation, at some point or other, information gathered on the handheld will have to be synched up to the system of record.

“Many implementations are untethered to a point,” says Stephen Lambright, VP of marketing and customer service at wireless network system and services provider Apprion. “At the end of the day, the connection to the system of record is remade. It gives some degree of portability. It makes information available to the person in the plant, even if it isn’t in real time. It might be discontinuous, but it’s better than nothing.”

An industrial wireless network is essential for any sort of “PlantBerry” reporting, Lambright adds. “Smart phones and PDAs rely on cellular networks. You can’t tie that into a system of record, so you have to create a wireless network that’s secure and high-performance, and it’s unlikely that’s going to be cellular. It’s going to be Wi-Max or 802.11 or some standard designed for the purpose. You’re going to want to create a dedicated network, so you’re not creating a risk in the plant.”

And that dedicated network is one of the sticking points for some process manufacturers. “Putting wireless intrastructure in an industrial facility is not at all like installing one in an office,” says Motorola’s Eriksen. “We’re not talking about just putting in a bunch of hot spots. You have to take into account battery life, security, issues about pre-emptive roaming. Getting coverage is much more challenging than in an office. You need to do a much better job of surveying the facility and designing the infrastructure.”

The Holistic View

Once we start talking about installing wireless architecture, the potentially ugly conflict between IT and plant operations looms. The way to avoid the conflict—or at least minimize its negative effects—is to take a holistic view, says Eriksen.

“Too many companies will deploy wireless and handhelds separately. Then they find out they’re not as compatible as they thought,” he says. “We’ve seen too many cases where one group puts in wireless, and another group puts in handhelds, and they’re not talking to one another.”

The challenge is that in an organizational hierarchy where the plant is Level 3 and IT is Level 4, the wireless system and accompanying handheld deployment falls at Level 3.5. “Who’s going to own 3.5?” asks Eriksen. “It has to be decided. It’s another battleground between plant and IT, but plants are in a better position to know.”

Taking a holistic approach means addressing not only that “who gets to say” issue, but looking at all the ramifications of the implementation for deployment. Eriksen says this means understanding a number of things; for example, that security standards should be supported by the devices and that battery life is related to how the devices are used on the network. “Properly designed, you can easily get a full shift off of one battery, but if you set up your device in such a way that the device doesn’t know how to interact with the network in a battery-efficient way, you’ll run down your battery in no time,” he says. 

Another factor to consider is that most handhelds are based on Windows mobile software, but most wireless deployments are 802.11 standard-based technology. Taking a holistic approach to deployment means making sure these things work together. “It’s not to say you can’t mix and match,” says Eriksen, “but you have to think about that before you put [the system] in. You should have the same group responsible for both.”

So how close are we to “beach blanket control?” Not very.

“It’s not a driving demand,” says NI’s Jackson. “It’s by no means a game-changing technology. We’ll see slow adoption.”

Transpara’s Saucier concurs, up to a point. “The adoption is all over the map,” he says. “It’s never going to be used for control purposes. You’re not going to be phoning in setpoints.” Adoption is also a matter of country and culture, he says. “In Japan it’s already there. Europe is in second place for cultural readiness. It will be 10 to 12 years in the U.S.”

But then, look out. “One good thing about the graying workforce is that the next generation will adopt it immediately,” says Saucier.

Three Uses

Information delivery is where handhelds are coming into their own in process operations. In real-world work situations they have three major applications, says Robert Jackson, of product marketing at National Instruments.

  • Maintenance and work order management. In many scenarios. maintenance has to be performed in a given order and documented. In these cases, an interface to a PDA or laptop gives workers the files they need and the capability to document their work.
  • Portable measurement. Jackson says this is the most technically challenging application, the problem being that handhelds do not have a standard high-speed interface to high-speed I/O. Many handhelds are Windows CE-based, making it harder to develop the necessary drivers for them. Specific vertical hardware and software are needed to address requirements in this market. 
  • Alarm and system monitoring. Here is where much of the use of handhelds—including cell phones and “PlantBerries”—is garnering attention. Customers take PLC-based systems with open communications protocols and design or buy software that enables the handhelds as remote monitoring systems, sending notifications via email or presenting control information in formats that work on these devices.

At a large process manufacturer on the Gulf Coast, Apprion and systems integrator Rapid Solutions USA, a subsidiary of systems integrator Rapid Technologies in Calgary, Alberta, are implementing a system supporting all three of those goals. This company needs to increase its equipment uptime and produce more with less, explains John Lindsey, executive vice president at Rapid. The machinery needs to be kept up longer and operate accurately in order to produce better product and more of it. The company also needs to capture “near-miss” details of accidents that almost happen for reporting to OSHA. It also wants to use the data to reduce such incidents and their accompanying risk.

“Basically the goal is to put accurate information into the hander of workers and replace sticky notes and pads. When people don’t have the correct information, they get hurt, says Lindsey.

To achieve these goals, all the operations and maintenance engineers and capital projects staff are begin given handhelds. “Real-time wirelss components can deliver everything on the PC out to the field workers, explains Lindsey. “CMMS for parts and work orders, information from the ERP system, pump operation conditions, etc. Workers can document everything they’ve done and feed it back to all the systems.”

Power to the Power People

One of the early adopters of mobile reporting technology—the power generation industry—came as a surprise to Michael Saucier, founder and CEO of Transpara.

“I thought power would be laggards, but deregulation has set these guys on fire,” he says. “They’re fighting for their lives. So they’re using these [systems] big time. Some of them have a clear focus on fleet-wide performance management. It’s not just a matter of making one physical plant work well, but coordinating all activites to optimize corporate goals. They’re looking at assets as part of a portfolio instead of standalone. By having a transparent view of the data, people understand why these decisions are made. This doesn’t just lead to better performance, but boosts morale because people can see why certain decisions are made.”

Saucier says that half of his power clients don’t use the mobile technologies, but the other half are putting them on all their mobile devices. “It doesn’t matter whether you use big screens or small screens,” he says. “The secret sauce is the composite nature of the data. How you deliver this transparency is role-dependent. Executives want to look at different things than the engineers, but the underlying data is all the same.”