Is There an Industrial ‘Tabletphone’ in Your Future?

Some Automation World readers think they know the future of factory floor mobile communications.

Aw 11987 Tablet Phone

But will the persistent divide between production and information technology departments derail it? You decide.

Members of Automation World’s LinkedIn group shared their thoughts on the innovative concepts they see changing way we produce goods in the near-term. Ideas ranged from grid-based server architectures for running PLCs, to fiber optics replacing Ethernet, to proprietary company apps running on mobile devices.

Ted Kroll, an industrial automation professional in North Carolina, offers a future concept based on a new category of smart device he calls a “tabletphone.” These devices would be part of a wireless industrial control network that would include the warehouse, manufacturing operations and the front office, he says.

A key aspect of this future vision is that “every employee will have his/her own smart device to replace ID badges, radios, cell phones and intercoms,” Kroll says. “This will make several layers of information available to workers (about machines, inventory and productivity) and to supervisors (about where different individuals are located and what they’re doing).”

Agreeing with Kroll’s concept of making information available to operators, supervisors and managers in real time, Brad Hart, an automation specialist at C&E Sales (Louisville, Ky.), adds that he is already working to bring that concept to life using an iPad (or similar device) connected wirelessly to a Red Lion Data Station or G3 HMI, displaying the virtual HMI pages through the Safari browser.

“Just by pressing an icon on the iPad, the supervisor or maintenance person can quickly view real time information about the production machine,” says Hart. “You can have one data station for supervisors, in which the supervisors can manipulate the HMI data. You can also have a second data station for maintenance, showing information that matters to [them]. The result is reduced radio traffic, and having real time information.”

This concept is limited, according to Hart, in that only data available on the HMI is presented to the iPad user. He also notes that he has experienced pushback to this concept from a potential user because it would involve using wireless Ethernet and, therefore, would require IT to become part of the project.

Taking Kroll’s concept a step further, Harts says the principal innovation for this real-time information system would be for all production employees to have a tablet PC of some sort running the company’s own app program. Using this app, the employee’s tablet could be used to badge in/out for the day, and for operating each machine the person is working with that day.

Since “the performance of a machine and its operator(s) determine throughput and profitability, this app would track the daily performance, illustrating to the operator his/her performance” and thereby providing a motivation to improve, says Hart.

In Hart’s vision, tablets would be acceptable to take into meetings as the supervisor/manager/decision maker could keep an eye on production, while addressing the business of the meeting.  Powerpoints from the meeting could be made available through the app for review after the meeting, just as notes from maintenance about machine issues and fixes would become instant history in the server and accessible via the tablets.

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on this discussion at bit.ly/automationworld.

David Greenfield, dgreenfield@automationworld.com, is Media and Events Director for Automation World.

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