1661899545564 Rich Merritt

Is there a Tricorder in your near future?

June 7, 2006
Handheld technology is growing by leaps and bounds as control engineers and operators learn they can use the wireless devices. Problem is, few vendors have taken handhelds beyond simple applications.
By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

A ZILLION years ago, when I worked for NASA, we used an IBM 7094 Stretch computer to process ballistic camera data and track missiles being launched from Cape Canaveral. The computer room was nearly the size of a football field, with cabinets, tape drives, and core memories stretching into the distance.

The 7094 Stretch was the king of computers in its day, the forerunner to today’s IBM BlueGene L and Cray supercomputers. It staggers the mind to realize that even a moderately powerful handheld PDA or cellphone has more processing power and 1,000 times more memory than the 7094 Stretch. These  handhelds are becomng  increasingly powerful, and will change the future of process control and maintenance. Soon, you’ll all be carrying one.

My fellow columnist, Dan Hebert, thinks so, too. His column, “The Right Tool for the Job,” Technically Speaking, CONTROL, March ’06, reported that HMI applications are coming to PDAs and cell phones. At the recent National Manufacturing Week 2006 show in Chicago, I found that maintenance people already like handhelds because they’re easier to work with than the tiny, two-line LED display and four pushbuttons on most instrumentation. With wireless connections, they can calibrate and troubleshoot a device without having to crawl into a cabinet, or freeze their butts off on top of a distillation column in the winter.

Techs and supervisors who have to make inspection rounds love handhelds. No more writing on clipboards. No more entering work orders into a PC at end of shift. Maintenance and repair work orders can be entered, updated and reviewed in the field. No more paper at all.

Control engineers and operators are learning that they can go out into the plant carrying a wireless handheld, and see the same HMI displays that are on the control room’s terminals.

Problem is, few vendors have taken handhelds beyond simple applications. Vendors program handhelds to do one task, usually for their own devices.

If someone combined HART and fieldbus communicator software with HMI/SCADA, vibration analyzer, device diagnostics, and mobile CMMS software, you could do everything in one handheld. It would be Mr. Spock’s Tricorder, 300 years ahead of schedule.

One reason vendors aren’t already doing this is because few truly understand the handheld’s capabilities, and don’t know how to make their software work diskless. Running software in a diskless environment is a deal-breaker for many companies.

Still, the Tricorder may not be far off. Handheld technology is growing by leaps and bounds. Already, you can get handhelds with 2 GB of memory, 300 MHz processors, GB plug-in memory cards, and wireless web interfaces. This power allows nearly all your Windows-based programs to run in a handheld, provided the programs can operate in a diskless environment.

It’s cheap, too. A 128-MB cell phone can hold an HMI/SCADA system (3 MB from Indusoft), CMMS mobile application (48 MB from MRO), and Foundation fieldbus communicator (32 MB from Emerson Process) software, all at the same time, with plenty of room left over. Whatever you can’t fit in the handheld can run as a “thin client.”

Fabio Terezinho, product manager at Indusoft, says not only is Mr. Spock’s Tricorder possible, but it could be produced easily. “You can install and run application software on the handheld or use it as a Web thin client,” he explains. “Using a database solution based on ADO (ActiveX Database Object) over TCP/IP, any mobile device can write/read data from any SQL relational database, such as SQL Server, Oracle, or Sybase.”

Running the handheld as a thin client means the bloatware runs in a PC, but the handheld can see all the screens. From the handheld, you can access data from historians, ERP, MES, and similar databases.

Michael Saucier, of Transpara, agrees. His company showed software at the recent OSIsoft User Group meeting that permits bidirectional drilldown access to a company’s PI server from any internet enabled mobile device. This includes your cellphone, PDA, or Blackberry, and it knows what device you’re using.

It will probably take a small company on the bleeding edge to bring you the Universal Process Control/Star Trek Tricorder, but it’s right around the corner.

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