The concept of COTS didn’t start with mobile devices. The term was popularized in the mid-1990s when then U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry supported a major change to military purchasing guidelines.5
Instead of designing and building its own hardware and software, the military began looking first for technology and products that were designed and built by commercial firms and offered for sale to the general market — commercial off-the-shelf or COTS products.
COTS products are attractive for several reasons:
• Cost. Development costs have been spread out over a broad market, so the product is less expensive to buy.
• Availability. Products are readily available and can be quickly acquired or replaced. You don’t need to wait months or years to get them, nor do you have to keep expensive spare parts in stock.
• Integration. Because products in the general market are used by a wide range of businesses, common standards are often built in, making interoperability easier.
• Capabilities. Due to competitive pressures, more frequent product updates add new features and support for the latest technologies.
• Associated costs. Support and training costs are lower because the product is well known and familiar to technicians and employees.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE FACTORY
For similar reasons industrial automation experienced its own move to COTS hardware nearly 20 years ago when PCs first began to infiltrate the factory floor. Off-the-shelf PCs are now an integral part of the industry and used in a variety of settings.
What we’re seeing now appears to be the first 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 20 years, or even 10, for mobile to become standard in the industry. But what are the concerns for automation companies?
For employees in offices, using email on a smartphone or opening PDF documents on a tablet is easy and convenient. Most business environments run on Ethernet networks and Internet standards such as TCP/IP; compatible Wi-Fi networks are easy to add, or employees can use cellular networks. And except for companies with highly sensitive data, like financial institutions and government agencies, mobile devices seem much more like an opportunity than a problem.
But industrial automation companies, with their proprietary buses and traditional interoperability bottlenecks, are less obviously suited to operational personnel using off-the-shelf mobile devices.
The speed of adoption in automation has been slower than in other fields, though enthusiasm for it began early. In 2004, two researchers from Turkey theorized that mobility could make workers in industry more productive. Their proof of concept? They used a mobile phone to control a model crane using a SCADA system.6
It would take a few more years to see real-world adoption, but it’s clearly here now. In December 2013, engineers reported that they use a wide range of mobile apps and built-in mobile features on the job:
• Apps for flow calculation, conversion, simulation and drawing;
• Apps that show standards, for example for connectors or electrical wiring;
• Built-in sensory tools for testing, like GPS, gyro, magnetic field, accelerometer and proximity sensors;
• Built-in cameras, for example when designing around existing equipment or troubleshooting with an OEM (original equipment manufacturer); and
• Apps for monitoring and controlling PAC or PLC systems.7
These responses came from engineers of all ages, but expectations from younger engineers are even greater. As this demographic of workers begin to enter the factory, they simply assume the same capabilities they grew up with will be present.
“We see the younger employees of our customers walk up to an operator interface and try to manipulate the screen using the pinch and zoom movement with their fingers,” reports Tom Craven, OI/HMI product manager at GE Intelligent Platforms. “When they realize they can’t control the screen and information that way, there’s this reaction of ‘why not?’”8
INDUSTRY 4.0 AND FRIENDS
A raft of terms — the Fourth Industrial Revolution, M2M, the Internet of Things, Industrial Internet, Industry 4.0 — all point to the growing interconnectedness of sensors, actuators, machines and processes with each other and with the humans who work with them.
Hannover Messe in 2013 reflected a future vision that included improved interaction between machines and between machines and people, a merging of IT and automation, and a closer relationship between design and manufacturing.9
While some of this future vision reduces human involvement, perhaps even more of it links humans and machines for more efficient monitoring and control of sensors and systems.
Wireless network development and increasingly smaller and more powerful computers make this possible. Process industries often have far-flung installations that cry out for remote monitoring. In factories, technicians can manage equipment in another room or from another part of the world.
“If you don’t provide your employees mobile apps, you’ll not only lose productivity (time to action), but you’ll eventually have a harder time attracting new talent because the next generation workforce will be expecting this ... and your competitors will be doing it ... and hiring that key talent away from you,” says Philippe Winthrop of The Enterprise Mobility Foundation.10