ou’re out to dinner on a Friday night when you spot your plant supervisor a few tables away.

He’s busily manipulating his smart phone, despite his wife’s impatient glare. Then, with a look of satisfaction, he puts down his phone and rejoins the conversation.

You go to greet him and learn that he just increased the output on your plant’s bottle fillers, averting the need for a Saturday shift.

A likely scenario in your plant?

Increasingly, automation engineers and technicians are preferring usage of commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) mobile devices for following benefits:

Managing and operating on the move

Manage and operate on the move with informational KPIs or data from any source including HMI/SCADA. You can track asset and process KPIs, receive notifications on key trends, and get alerts on conditions that need fast action.

Taking the right actions at anytime from anywhere

Reduce response time and ensure the right response to alarms with prioritized task lists and step-by-step instructions. Move to a paperless method of managing procedures – with best practice instructions available to operators and technicians—anywhere, anytime.

Increasing collaboration across teams and at the same time tracking individual actions

Contact your team mates through the social like interfaces and also make notes at the same time. Record the latest changes—enter comments, take and attach pictures, include KPI details, and more.

Finding and alerting the right person, Fast!

Alert the right people of critical issues that matter, when they matter. With alarm intelligence, your engineers and operators can receive prioritized alerts with helpful instructions for how to resolve issues in the right way, right away.

Providing inexpensive machine operator interfaces

Provide the employees with inexpensive interfaces or even let the employees use their own mobile devices instead of expensive industrial interfaces which aren't even handy.

Reducing life risk for field engineers

For industries which include life risk for field engineers, enable them to operate remotely and reduce life risk

As Ethernet and wireless systems have become more common in industry, and as connections between control systems and business systems have become more common, we can see that this data has become valuable in ways like these:

  • Equipment status data can drive maintenance, improving efficiency and reducing downtime.
  • Realtime production data informs management business decisions.
  • Supply chains become more efficient, with deliveries tied directly to current needs.
  • Systems and equipment in remote or hazardous areas are easily monitored and adjusted, reducing employee time and expense and increasing safety.

It’s no wonder off-the-shelf smartphones and tablets are appealing.

  • They’re compact, lightweight, affordable, and readily available.
  • They offer powerful processors and high-definition screens with multi-gesture touch.
  • They have built-in wireless networking (IEEE 802.11) and security protocols (Wi-Fi Protected Access II, or WPA2, and industry-standard TLS, or transport layer security)
  • Lots of developers know how to program for them, so useful web-based and native apps are appearing quickly.
  • COTS mobile devices are familiar, especially to younger engineers, so training costs are much lower

Also process industries such as water/wastewater, mining, steel and oil & gas have far-flung installations and also include life risk which is why they have been crying out for remote monitoring and operation control.

At a stone quarry in Pennsylvania, two powerful 6-inch (15 cm) pumps remove millions of gallons of water that builds up from rainfall and runoff each year. An electrician standing at the quarry’s edge pulls out his iPhone®, opens a web browser or an application and on his screen he sees data for each pump—status and current draw—plus flow rate and the water level in the quarry. No problems, so no need to go down into the quarry. He moves on to his next task.

In California, control technicians at a citrus fruit processor adjust the speeds of conveyors routing fruit for washing and labelling. The noise level in the plant is high, and the HMI that controls conveyor speed is on the far side of the room. Instead of shouting to the operator at the HMI, the technician watching the fruit move through the equipment uses an app on his Android™ smartphone to fine-tune the conveyor.

As a result of the Mobile app and other Internet-enabled technology, after-hours troubleshooting is 40 percent faster and that reliability, uptime and energy savings have improved. The university plans to expand its use of Mobile with advanced alarm and analytics features.

– Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y

Looking at such implementations the scenario looks quite optimistic that the mobile devices have entered the industries as an HMI, but the usage of mobile devices has been limited to remote diagnostics and maintenance visualisation in SCADA solutions – so far, inspite of being capable of handling much more.

Why? For one and only reason, machine operators and maintenance staff have always been more physically tethered to their machines and traditional HMIs. Until now, accuracy and uptime in process manufacturing have required a 24/7 line-of-sight -- and physical presence.

And, until recently, the cost of implementing full process-control functionality on a mobile device has been prohibitive.Understandably, security concerns also have had a chilling effect on the pursuit of mobile plant interfaces. The risk of damaging a $500,000 machine – or the loss of production capabilities – is too high a price for convenient information access.

But development costs are coming down for mobile device/PLC interfaces, paving the way for access to discrete plant operations via smartphone, tablet or other mobile devices. Hardened devices are popping up, too – bringing users access without the security concerns.

The next generation of mobile interfaces for process control probably won’t be exact replications of today’s HMIs. Instead, we can expect simpler, scaled-back interfaces: discrete notifications like production line alerts and alarms, output reports by plant and the like.

What about security? Ultimately, mobile security is an extension of your plant’s plant network security. So you’ll be good to go – if you’ve built sound security protocols into your Ethernet network, if you’re using the right switches, and if you’ve designed your network using designated manufacturing zones (DMZs) and an industrial firewall between zones.

Data convergence is all about amping up productivity and gaining control over quality and output. That happens when we bring the right information to the right people at the right time – and the right place.

The time is right to make plant data portable. Soon, I predict, we’ll wonder how we ever managed our plants without it.

- Mike Pantoleano, Rockwell Automation

Lately many more super powers are being added to the already very powerful mobile phones. Powerful AI and Machine Learning sdks have been developed for the mobile platforms invigorating them a step further and allowing them to act independently in offline circumstances as well.

What we’re seeing now appears to be the wave of a similar off-the-shelf product adoption in mobile devices for automation. With the current speed of technological change, it probably won’t take 10 years, or even 5, for mobile to become standard in the industry.