Get Ready to Leverage Mobile Device Control Strategies

Adoption is just taking hold, but mobile access to process data and controls is here to stay

By Jean Femia, Opto 22

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At a pharmaceutical manufacturer in New Jersey, a fully automated clean-in-place (CIP) system with programmable logic controllers, multiple balance tanks, sensors, valves, heat exchangers, data acquisition instruments/equipment, etc., and specially designed spray nozzles is poised, ready to perform its sanitization process to prepare the line for its next batch. Unfortunately, one of the primary detergent control valves is not responding and the operations manager is at the other site. Fortunately the manager feels his phone buzzing on his belt, pulls out his iPhone, sees an IM showing an alert, opens the control application, types in his username and password and dispatches a technician to do a visual check of the balking valve. On his screen the manager sees data for each CIP system component, and when the technician arrives on the scene, he conducts a quick video conference to discuss the problem and confirm visually in-situ conditions. Moments later, manual actuation frees the valve and the cleaning process starts as scheduled.

In California, a control technician at a pharmaceutical contract manufacturer adjusts the speed of a vibration table guiding vials to filling and sealing operations. The noise level in the plant is high, and the HMI that controls the table’s speed is on the far side of the room. Instead of shouting to the operator at the HMI, the technician watching the vials move through the line uses an app on his smartphone to fine-tune the table.

Increasingly, automation engineers and technicians are seeing the value of using commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) mobile devices for situations like these:

• Remotely accessing equipment
• Commissioning and maintaining systems
• Providing inexpensive machine operator interfaces

But is this move to mobile a disaster waiting to happen or the future of automation? Recent LinkedIn discussions in automation groups show the wide divide between those who fear the new mobile technology and those who embrace it. A January 2014 discussion in the International Society of Automation (ISA) group garnered typical comments on both sides: “A breach in system security can destroy the safety system. It looks like Russian roulette.”  

“Think about what you could do if you had a 3D model of your plant on a tablet right in the field!”¹ Who is right, and where do we go from here? Following is some practical advice for choosing mobile devices — whether off-the-shelf or not — suited to your automation application (Figure 1).  

Most tech-savvy people have quickly gravitated to smartphones and tablets (Figure 2) in their personal lives: texting, gaming, reading, posting on Facebook and Twitter, watching videos and taking them, even banking and paying bills online.

It’s easy, it’s fast, and one can do just about anything one needs or wants to, anywhere in the world. Music, maps, a digital camera or two, notebook, address book, calendar, stopwatch, alarm clock, calculator, photo album, GPS, encyclopedic dictionary, complete retail stores — oh yes, and also a phone — all of these and more are in your pocket ready to use.

The younger you are, the less you realize how amazing this transformation is and the more you simply expect the convenience of mobile, wherever you are. So why should this convenience stop at the door to your workplace? Increasingly, it doesn’t.

In 2009 Intel found employees bringing their personal mobile devices to work. About two years later the company projected that by 2014, 70 percent of their employees would be using their own devices in their jobs.² Other companies noticed the same trend, dubbed “bring your own device” or BYOD.

“BYOD strategies are the most radical change to the economics and the culture of client computing in business in decades,” noted David Willis of industry analyst Gartner in 2013. “The benefits of BYOD include creating new mobile workforce opportunities, increasing employee satisfaction, and reducing or avoiding costs.”³ According to automation journalist Bill Lydon in a recent editorial column, “Employees routinely report to work with more computing power in the palm of their hand than their desktop machines held just a decade ago.”4

The BYOD trend has been met with intense worry as well as great enthusiasm. Company and employee concerns about employees using their own devices at work are real: network security, privacy, “who” pays for the data plan and so on. Most all own ideas about whether employees’ personal devices belong at work.

But no matter which side of the debate one stands, the rapid growth of this trend shows us something important: the power of COTS mobile devices to make a difference in business. Mainstream smartphones and tablets create new opportunities to simplify and streamline operational tasks, and many don’t want to do without them.

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