In the past six months our team has noticed something very interesting. The COVID-19 pandemic, work from home orders, and varying state regulations has caused an exciting re-classification of technology. Typically, we see a slow transition with new and leading-edge technology. It starts out being hyped by vendors and is then adopted by a small percentage of clients considered to be early adopters. It then takes several years and many whitepapers for the technology to move into a more widely accepted status with the adoption laggards coming in some time later. Mobility has often been used as a standard buzzword—similar to others such as Internet of Things, Big Data, artificial intelligence, digitalization, etc.—Our team fully expected that our rollout of virtualization, mobile, and tablet human-machine interfaces (HMIs) to customers would follow a similar path.
We focused on the benefits of virtualization, mobile, and tablet HMIs and were slowly ramping up its use with clients willing to adopt this technology as part of their active project efforts before the pandemic. We were writing whitepapers and presenting in customer meetings and trade shows fully expecting its adoption to ramp up per the normal adoption cycle. The global pandemic however greatly accelerated this adoption, albeit by necessity, and we saw virtualization and mobility going from being somewhere in the early to mid-adoption cycle straight to large scale adoptions. Our company operates in the regulated industries so such a quick a ramp up through the adoption cycle was extremely unusual.
There were many other reasons that this adoption cycle accelerated. One of the biggest drivers our clients shared was the ability to make changes and interact with equipment without needing to go into a process area or leave their homes, in some cases. Having virtualized systems and mobile platforms allowed clients to make changes without needing to go to a piece of equipment. This was especially critical at a time when companies were simultaneously working to keep critical and regulated manufactured goods at normal production levels while working to implement contact tracing and COVID-19 operational plans.
Using virtualization and mobility was a huge advantage for having production run in parallel with COVID-19 mitigation efforts, and, in some cases, the virtualization and mobility platforms actually became part of the COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Requiring Windows credentials for logins helped complete a difficult task of how to contact trace shared HMIs, and the use of tablets either eliminated shared HMIs, or at the very least made it easier to sanitize them.
We have also seen the higher adoption of virtualization and mobile HMIs lead companies to focus more on its plant and network security as well as redundancy and high availability options. One of the most common hesitations for mobility with clients seemed to be network reliability and security. When mobility was a nice to have, little was done to address these. But when it became a necessity, addressing data delivery and access concerns moved to the critical path. This is especially apparent as we are now starting to see greenfield facilities have mobility written into the list of standards and requirements.
Having technically superior operations has always been sought after for an advantage in the market, but for the first time we saw early adoption as being a competitive necessity to continue to operate in unforeseen market conditions. Virtualization and mobility has allowed clients to keep operations going during the pandemic and, for some, it became an important part of their COVID-19 operation plans. Either way, it is evident that having a robust secure automation network layer is an important first step in achieving mobility for your manufacturing operations.
Will Aja is vice president customer operations at Panacea Technologies, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Panacea, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.