At a stone quarry in Pennsylvania, two powerful 6” (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 smartphone, opens a web browser and types in a URL and his password. 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 labeling. 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 smartphone to fine-tune the conveyor.

The Move to Mobile

Increasingly, automation engineers and technicians are seeing the value of using commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) mobile devices for remotely accessing equipment, commissioning and maintaining systems and 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 a 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!”

Who is right, and where do we go from here?

Mobile Means Business

Most of us have quickly gravitated to smartphones and tablets in our personal lives, so why should this convenience stop at the door to your workplace? Increasingly, as more employees bring their personal devices to work, dubbed “BYOD” (or bring your own device), it does not — even where industrial automation is involved.

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 our industry and used in a variety of settings. What we are seeing today appears to be the first wave of a similar off-the-shelf product adoption in mobile devices for automation, and for good reason. Engineers report that they use a range of mobile apps and built-in mobile features in their jobs, including:

  • Apps for flow calculation, conversion, simulation and drawing.
  • Apps that show standards such as for connectors or electrical wiring.
  • Built-in sensory tools such as GPS, gyro, magnetic field, accelerometer and proximity sensors that can be used for testing.
  • Built-in cameras that can be used for quick documentation when designing around existing equipment or troubleshooting with an OEM.
  • Apps for monitoring and controlling PAC or PLC systems.

A raft of industry 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.

Wireless network development and increasingly smaller and more powerful computers make this possible. Process industries such as oil and gas, petrochemicals or water/wastewater and have far-flung installations that cry out for remote monitoring. In factories, technicians can manage equipment in another room or in another part of the world.

4 Considerations for Using COTS Mobile in Automation

Obviously, mobile is part of the future in automation, so when considering using mobile devices in industrial settings, it is important to think about four factors: environment, safety, security and connectivity.

1. Environment

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

If your environment is harsh, you may need to look at ruggedized devices. Mobile manufacturers have developed ruggedized tablets that meet military standards such as the U.S. Department of Defense MIL-STD-810 and/or that qualify for high ingress protection (IP) ratings from the International Electrotechnical Commission.

But, many industrial environments do not require this kind of protection. Ruggedized mobile devices are not only significantly more expensive but also rarely match the features users appreciate and expect on personal devices: multitasking, gestures beyond the basics, built-in sensors, voice recognition, cameras and communications through email and texting. Because personal devices are becoming more robust and protective cases are available to toughen off-the-shelf smartphones and tablets, it is worth considering whether or not it is necessary to use ruggedized devices.

2. Safety

Safety is a critical component for industrial settings. In locations with high concentrations of dust or flammable liquids or gases, intrinsically safe wireless devices — phones, calibrators and other portable instruments — may be required. In less-hazardous areas, however, COTS mobile devices are not considered a problem.

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 touchscreens rely on your body’s ability to conduct electricity; cover your fingers in thick gloves and your swipes and taps will not work. 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.

3. Security

Security concerns for automation companies often go beyond the 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.
  • 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 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.

Because IT already has experience with securing Ethernet networks, they often can help control engineers design network segments, purchase suitable routers and install firewalls.

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 (WiFi) and often Bluetooth — they simplify connections to your business and automation systems.

Of course, your application and environment will determine whether wireless connectivity is a concern. In hazardous environments, wireless devices may need explosionproof certification. In addition, some industrial settings may find wireless networking problematic due to signal interference from equipment and machinery. Yet 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 to monitor and control affects how you connect to them. If you are commissioning a system or checking key performance indicators (KPIs) within your facility, for example, your mobile device will connect through your local wireless network. If you are monitoring production miles away or controlling remote pumps, you will need to connect over the Internet.

Whenever you connect to a private company network over the Internet, most security experts recommend using a virtual private network (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.

New Tools for Mobile Interfaces

So perhaps you have decided that COTS smartphones or tablets could be useful in your application. Before you move ahead, there is one more thing to think about: the operator interface for the mobile device.

If someone else builds the app and you just download it, you have no control over what goes into it (although most app developers are interested in making their apps useful and may appreciate suggestions.) But an increasing number of manufacturers are making tools available so you can create a mobile interface for your equipment or system, or adapt an HMI you already have. There are web-based tools for both developing and using mobile operator interfaces. Often these tools provide simplicity, allowing:

  • Interfaces to be built on any brand computer with a modern web browser. Plug-ins are not required.
  • Interfaces to be 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 to be built at the same time, but each can be modified to place gadgets where they are most useful.
  • Interfaces to be built for almost any automation system.
  • Permissions to be assigned to specific users based on the screens they need to see. Individual usernames and passwords are required to log in.
  • All communications between devices and the server are encrypted for security using WPA2 and SSL.
  • Because they are web-based and use Internet standards, interfaces can be viewed on virtually any device with a modern web browser, regardless of its size or brand.

Moving Ahead

So is mobile in automation “Russian roulette” or “the new normal?” Possibly both. It depends on you. COTS mobile devices are already being used in industrial automation, and the trend will accelerate. The only question is whether you will be prepared.

Start thinking now about the environmental, safety, security and connectivity factors your automation system requires. Work with IT to build your security infrastructure and with management to establish mobile policies. Decide whether you will provide mobile devices to employees. Decide whether employees’ personal devices should be used for business purposes. Make sure everyone understands the rules and reasons for how mobile devices —both personal and company-supplied — may be used in your facilities.

And, start now to think about 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 you and your company. Our challenge as automation professionals is to embrace connected intelligence in an intelligent way.