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Wireless mobile devices proliferate, but challenges remain

April 28, 2022

Almost all the conversation about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) seems to about edge sensors and actuators, which makes sense since they constitute the vast majority of connected devices. And, while most of these devices end up as machine-to-machine inputs to large data lakes, eventually this information ends up being presented to a human. And, as all of us know, the expectation today is that we can access that information over any display device wherever we might be.

A good example of this is using a maps application on your personal mobile device. Your handheld is both sensor and display, as the GPS circuitry triangulates with cell towers and software to determine where you are physically, with the cloud service then overlaying this onto a map and transmitting the information back to you.

A recent Frost & Sullivan study showed that using mobile devices can increase employee productivity by an impressive 34% per day. The following example shows how this could be applied in an industrial setting by a roving operator or staff member that identifies an issue with a piece of equipment. This individual starts the investigation by taking location- and time-stamped photographs of the equipment for clear reference, then annotating the image. With the problem clearly identified and documented, it can the be sent to the person best qualified to get at the root of the problem, leveraging access to virtual assistance applications or livestream tutorials as needed.

Anecdotal evidence from our own habits and a recent Ericsson Mobility smartphone analytics report supports the Frost & Sullivan work, predicting a 25% increase in mobile traffic by 2025. Much of this traffic will come from increased video and streaming, and in industrial settings from mobile support applications such as heads up display camera capture or use cases like the example described above.

Industrial adoption of new technologies is of course slower than in the consumer market for reasons of security and demands of the work environment itself.
The NIST 1800-4 documents provide guidance for mobile device security for cloud and hybrid applications in the business environment, which can be used as the basis for connecting devices to the corporate infrastructure. Individual organization policies and procedures regarding what parts of the network can be reached remotely will obviously impact the level of integration possible. One useful aspect of mobile operator displays is they normally have location services that can to confirm you are where you say you are in the facility as one way to limit the plant information you can access.

Environmental obstacles

The plant environment includes issues of noise, dust, gas and area classification that need to be addressed by any device used in that setting.

Meanwhile, humidity, dust or dirt can affect the touch abilities of mobile devices, while large temperature variations can affect battery function and possibly make the mobile device work slower with longer response times. Light conditions can also differ, thus impacting the color scheme and lighting in the device to realize the best contrast and hence viewability.

One option to address some of the environmental challenges, while also leaving workers’ hands free, is using screenless displays that integrate digital-light processing, wireless networking and mobile operating system technologies to project content onto practically any surface, creating a heads-up display. A recent study by Research and Markets, forecasts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in this market of almost 30% over the next five years.

The remaining plant implementation hurdle is electrical classification. Though Class 1, Division 2 (Zone 2) is common to most industries, mobile devices are available for area classifications to Class 1 Division 1 (Zone 1). Availability of these devices is limited, however, slowing economies of scale.

But it's certain that mobile device use in the plant environment will continue to grow. The only question is how quickly.

About the author: Ian Verhappen

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