Get Ready to Leverage Mobile Device Control Strategies

Aug. 19, 2014
Adoption is just taking hold, but mobile access to process data and controls is here to stay

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.”  

Figure 1

Monitoring a production system using an off-the-shelf tablet

“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.

Figure 2

Tablets are mobile devices familiar to most employees.

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.”4NEW OPPORTUNITIESThe 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.

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.


Figure 3

In many environments, an inexpensive case like this Otterbox is sufficient protection for a smartphone.

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.6It 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.7These 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

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

So mobile devices are part of automation’s future, and if one hasn’t thought much about it, now is a good time to start. When considering using mobile devices in industrial settings, focus on the following four factors: environment, safety, security and connectivity:

1) Environment
Industrial environments vary widely. Harsh environments can kill a mobile device. Drop an unprotected tablet onto concrete and you’ve got a problem. Use a smartphone in extreme heat, severe cold, or over 95 percent humidity, and it won’t last long. Water and chemicals corrode. Dust and dirt scratch and clog screens and buttons.

If the operating environment is harsh, take a look at ruggedized devices. For example, mobile device manufacturers Panasonic and DAP Technologies have developed a variety of ruggedized tablets that meet military standards (such as the U.S. Department of Defense MIL-STD-810) and/or qualify for high IP (International Electrotechnical Commission Ingress Protection) ratings.


An increasing number of manufacturers are making tools available so users can create a mobile interface for their equipment or system, or to adapt an existing HMI. One of these is Opto 22’s groov,19 a Web-based tool for both developing and using mobile operator interfaces.

According to Opto 22, groov’s premise is simplicity:
• Interfaces can be built on any brand computer with a modern Web browser. No plugins are required.
• Interfaces are built quickly and require no programming or coding. The developer drags and drops indicators and controls from a built-in library of gadgets, then tags them from his existing database on a tag server.
• Interfaces for phones and tablets are built at the same time, but each can be modified to place gadgets where they are most useful.
• Interfaces can be built for almost any automation system, because the solution acts as an OPC-UA client.
• Permissions are assigned to specific users based on the screens they need to see. Individual user names and passwords are required to log in.
• Interfaces are served to authorized users from an industrially hardened groov Box or from a Windows PC acting as a server.
• All communications between devices and the groov server are encrypted for security using WPA2 and SSL.
• Because they are Web-based and use Internet standards, groov interfaces can be viewed on virtually any device with a modern Web browser, regardless of its size or brand. Interface elements automatically scale to fit the size and shape of the device, while remaining large enough to see and use.

• MIL-STD-810 covers shock, vibration, altitude, humidity, extreme temperatures, dust and several other conditions.• IP ratings are usually two-digit numbers, the first number for dust (solids) and the second for water (liquids). For example, an IP rating of 65 means a device is dustproof and can protect against low-pressure water jets from any direction.But many industrial environments don’t require this kind of protection. And ruggedized mobile devices are not only significantly more expensive, but also rarely match the features most appreciate and expect on personal, smart devices: multitasking, gestures beyond the basics, built-in sensors, voice recognition, cameras, communications through email/texting and more. Personal devices are becoming more robust as well. Corning Gorilla Glass is highly scratch-, chemical- and break-resistant and is the standard screen cover glass in many consumer mobile devices. Corning even has an antimicrobial cover glass. With toughness and optical clarity similar to regular Gorilla Glass, the company says it also reduces bacteria by more than 99.9 percent. Antimicrobial glass could be a good choice for a tablet or phone used as an HMI on machines, kiosks or walls, where many people touch it.11Protective cases are now available to toughen off-the-shelf smartphones and tablets, too. An inexpensive OtterBox (Figure 3) — designed for personal use and available for a variety of brands and sizes — can protect against dirt and dust, a 10-foot (3 m) drop onto concrete, two tons (907 kg) of pressure, and immersion in 6.5 feet (2 m) of water for 30 minutes.12 Other solutions include low-cost field protection against water, dirt, and shock from LifeProof, and iPad stands and enclosures from Hoffman (Figure 4).13

2) Safety
Safety is a critical component for industrial settings. In locations with high concentrations of dust, or flammable liquids or gasses, intrinsically safe wireless devices — phones, calibrators and other portable instruments — may be required. Intrinsically safe products limit current and voltage so that they cannot produce sufficient energy to cause a spark.

In less-hazardous areas, however, COTS mobile devices are not considered a problem. In the early 2000s, a spate of reports in the press, later debunked, claimed to connect cell phone use to fuel station fires.

Figure 4

Available protection for tablets includes Hoffman enclosures and stands.

In response, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission wrote, “... while it may be theoretically possible for a spark from a cell phone battery to ignite gas vapor under very precise conditions, there is no documented incident where the use of a wireless phone was found to cause a fire or explosion at a gas station.”14 In some applications, protective equipment like helmets, goggles and gloves can make it difficult to see a screen or handle a mobile device, whether ruggedized or COTS. Modern capacitive touch screens rely on the body’s ability to conduct electricity; swipes and taps won’t work with fingers covered by thick gloves. Another potential problem with protective gear is unintended gestures on the device. Whether stored in a padded pocket or inadvertently brushed with a glove, the industrial equivalent of “butt” dialing can be avoided simply by building verifications into the interface. But in the many areas where protective gear isn’t needed, these concerns don’t apply. More attention is being paid to the safety advantages of mobile: “You can keep cabinet doors closed and keep a safe distance away from the energized equipment,” notes one engineer.153) SecurityAutomation company security concerns often go beyond normal business concerns about company data because critical processes and equipment are key in industrial control. Proprietary control networks not connected to any other systems make security much easier than Ethernet or wireless networks, precisely because they are isolated and few people understand them. But closed, proprietary networks also lock useful data inside.As Ethernet and especially wireless systems become more common in industry, and as connections between control systems and business systems become more common, this valuable data becomes useful in many ways:• Supply chains become more efficient, with deliveries tied directly to current needs;• Real-time production data informs management business decisions;• Equipment status data drives maintenance, improving efficiency and reducing downtime; and• Systems and equipment in remote or hazardous areas are easily monitored and adjusted, reducing employee time and expense and increasing safety.The benefits of making data available are obvious, but the importance of securing that data is obvious as well. As their operational realms become interconnected, information technology (IT) and industrial automation (IA) personnel must work hand-in-hand to protect network security, and turf wars between IT and IA must give way to alliance against a common enemy. Control system security is just part of an overall security plan that includes far more than computer networks. Frost & Sullivan suggest (Figure 5):16 • Looking at all possible attack vectors, both cyber and physical;• Thinking about all vulnerabilities: people, processes and physical security gaps; and• Considering control system vulnerabilities.
Figure 5

Cyber and physical attack vectors must be considered when assessing control system vulnerabilities.

The best system security is multi-layered, starting with access to the mobile device itself, continuing to its communication with your company network, and ending with layers of protection for the automation system and key pieces of equipment. Device access. Manufacturers are experimenting with a variety of password protection methods for accessing COTS mobile devices: simple number locks, a pattern swipe (Android), a fingerprint scanner (iPhone), facial recognition (Android), a gesture-on-a-picture (Microsoft Windows). All of these methods can help keep unauthorized people from using the device. If you supply devices to your employees, you may want to look into other protections as well, for example:• Endpoint protection programs, similar to anti-malware and security applications on PCs• Isolated virtual environments (also called containers) that separate personal apps and data from company apps and data on the deviceDevice communication. One advantage of COTS mobile devices is that security standards for communication are built in. When you check your bank balance or pay bills online from your phone, you use its built-in Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA2) security, a protocol called secure sockets layer (SSL), and some combination of username, password and perhaps images or special questions to verify that you have the right to take those actions.Similar standards must be used in your industrial mobile apps to verify users and track operator actions. Look at mobile device management (MDM) client programs for mobile devices, for example. These programs give your IT department the ability to control software, track a device’s location and regulate the use of company systems by anyone using the device.Automation system protection. Whether you use COTS mobile devices or not, your company networks, both IT and automation, must be made as secure as possible. Mobile devices are only one part of an overall security strategy designed to identify, authenticate and track users; control access; and monitor and respond to any unusual activity.

An August 2013 white paper from network device manufacturer Moxa suggests several actions to take:17

• Segment IA from the rest of the company.
• Segment subsystems and key equipment.
• Disable unused ports on networked devices.
• Filter incoming MAC addresses to allow access only to authorized devices.
• Use a deep packet inspection (DPI) firewall to identify suspicious use from authorized sources.
• Monitor passwords for strength, and force periodic change.
• Always change default usernames and passwords on networked devices.
• Use a virtual private network (VPN) for remote access.
• Train employees on safe Internet usage.

If technicians use mobile devices to gather and store data, for example from remote equipment, another consideration is keeping that data safe and available if the device is lost or damaged. Backing up data to the cloud or to a company server are options to consider, depending on the confidentiality of the data.

4) Connectivity
As the Internet of Things expands, adding wireless capability to an increasing number of sensors and equipment, COTS mobile devices become attractive for their ability to connect. With a variety of standard wireless options built in — cellular (3G, 4G, LTE), wireless LAN (Wi-Fi), and often Bluetooth — they simplify connections to your business and automation systems (Figure 6).

Of course, your application and environment will determine whether wireless connectivity is a concern. In hazardous environments, wireless devices may need explosion-proof certification. In addition, some industrial settings may find wireless networking problematic due to signal interference from equipment and machinery.
In other industrial settings, wireless networks can work consistently well and provide a new method of connectivity that makes maintenance and monitoring easier.

The location of the systems and equipment you want to monitor and control affects how you connect to them. If you’re commissioning a system or checking KPIs within your facility, for example, your mobile device will connect through your local wireless network. If you’re monitoring production miles away or controlling remote pumps, you’ll need to connect over the Internet. 

Figure 6

 COTS mobile devices use up-to-date cellular, wireless LAN, and other wireless technologies.

Whenever you connect to a private company network using the Internet, most security experts will recommend using a virtual private network, or VPN. The VPN creates a kind of protected tunnel through the Internet for increased security. COTS mobile devices have a VPN client built in, which simplifies setup for a VPN.

So what’s the answer to the question: Is mobile in automation “Russian roulette” or “the new normal?” Possibly both. It depends, of course, but COTS mobile devices are already being used in industrial automation, and the trend will accelerate. The only question is whether the pharmaceutical industry, among others, will be prepared. Start thinking now about the environmental, safety, security and connectivity factors your automation system requires. Then work with IT to build out the security infrastructure, as well as with management to establish mobile policies.

It is also time to decide whether or not the organization will provide mobile devices to employees. Similarly, the organization has to decide whether or not employees’ personal devices should be used for business purposes. At this point it is prudent to make sure everyone understands the rules and reasons for how mobile devices (both personal and company-supplied) will be deployed and implemented. Finally, it’s time to carefully consider how COTS smartphones and tablets can help your business be more efficient and competitive. Talk with other engineers, technicians, and managers about specific ways mobile can be useful to most any manufacturing operation.

“What’s lacking is broad recognition of what has become possible, and the vision to utilize these new technologies to transform industry,” says Andy Chatha of ARC Advisory Group.18 “Our challenge as automation professionals is to embrace connected intelligence in an intelligent way.”


1 LinkedIn ISA group discussion, January 2014,
2 Mobile: Learn from Intel's CISO on Securing Employee-Owned Devices (webinar, not dated),
3 Gartner press release May 2013,
4 Bill Lydon, “Is BYOD (bring your own device) worth the risk?” 17 Dec 2012,
5 COTS Journal online (undated),
6 E. Ozdemir and M. Karacor, “Mobile phone based SCADA for industrial automation,” ISA Transactions, V 45, No 1, Jan 2006, pp. 67–75,
7 LinkedIn Automation & Control Engineering group discussion, Dec 2013,
8 James R. Koelsch, “Time to upgrade your HMI?”, Automation World, 8 March 2014.
9 Suzanne Gill, “Industry prepares for the next industrial revolution,” Control Engineering, 27 June 2013.
10 Philippe Winthrop, “Thinking About The ROI of Mobile Apps? Think Instead About Sports Advertising,” 20 Dec 2013, blog post.
11 Corning website,
12 OtterBox website:
13 Reviewed by Control Engineering,
14 FCC Guide, “Wireless Devices at Gas Stations,”
15 LinkedIn discussion in ISA - International Society of Automation group, Feb 2014.
16 Ivan Fernandez, “Cybersecurity for Industrial Automation & Control Environments,” April 2013,
17 Jim Toepper, “Industrial Networking Security Best Practices,” 20 August 2013,
18 Andy Chatha, “Planning for the Industrial Internet of Things,” ARC Advisory Group, 30 Jan 2014.
19 groov website:

About the Author

Jean Femia | Opto 22