ABB brings safety, efficiency to Field Ops 4.0

By Mike Bacidore

Mar 07, 2019

The future of artificial intelligence (AI) may not be in the cloud or in the control room, but out on the plant floor. Indeed, a new pilot technology dubbed Field Operator 4.0 was demonstrated at this week’s ABB Customer World 2019 in Houston. The sneak preview gave attendees the opportunity to experience two mobile worker interfaces prior to release, anticipated near the end of the year.

“Field Operator 4.0 is designed to improve the efficiency and safety of field operators,” said Dave Funderburg, global technology manager, ABB. Both a tablet version and a hands-free HoloLens version will be released simultaneously. “It reduces the need for interaction with operators in the control room, and it removes manual entry because you can enter data from the interface,” explained Funderburg.

In addition to saving time and simplifying workflows, the software can identify devices and locations to ensure that an operator isn’t conducting the right task in the wrong context, a relatively common error, said Funderburg. “You follow the right procedure, but you’re at the wrong device,” he explained. “But with Field Operator 4.0 you can verify and document that you’re at the right location before and after. A lot of major safety events occur because of miscues like this—someone at the wrong device or who didn’t lock it out and tag it out properly.”

The customers piloting Field Operator 4.0 are in the oil-and-gas and chemical industries, but Funderburg also foresees applications in pharmaceutical, as well as food and beverage. “Any industry using manual entry out in the field is a good candidate,” he said.

Tablet interface or hands-free option

Data can be entered on the commercial off-the-shelf, hardened industrial tablet in Class I, Div. 1, or Zone 1 areas, or a hands-free option is available with HoloLens. “But that technology is currently lagging for hazardous environments,” explained Funderburg, who anticipates updated hardware that should be a better fit. For now, the current version of HoloLens is relevant for a training environment.

“The mobile device and HoloLens connect in real-time to a back-end server,” said Funderburg. “The system will scale based on the number of concurrent users, which will vary based on plant size. We will support initial installation and setup, and we’ll work with the client to create their procedures. We support commissioning and training, also, so they can create content, such as the values of the pumps and motors and valves. The tool is meant to be user-configurable.”

As the system launches and data begins to accumulate, Field Operator 4.0 will work toward developing artificial intelligence. “We’re starting to build this into it, so it has a digital assistant,” explained Funderburg. “The field operator will be able to talk to the system and ask for information about the pressures and levels, or it will be able to alert you if there are alarms in the area.”

The system also will be able to offer advice as you’re beginning a step—for example, giving a warning that the particular step should be done with caution because it’s the one when most field personnel make an error in the process.

“We’re prototyping those concepts along three tracks: prescriptive AI, procedural KPIs, plus alarms and safety,” Funderburg said. “There are different sophistications to each one.”

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