iVisualization: Using Mobile Apps on the Factory Floor

May 16, 2011
By Fred Bossard, president, Aurora Industrial Automation

Smart phones and tablet devices have made mobile working significantly easier and manufacturers are eyeing the impact these devices can have on their operations. These devices already are providing manufacturing intelligence – actionable, real-time plant data – to mobile workers as part of an extended visualization system.

Now, Aurora Industrial Automation, a Rockwell Automation Systems Integrator, has developed an Apple iPad/iPhone application (app) called Aurora Mobile Apps that allows users to access real-time, plant-floor data through FactoryTalk® ViewPoint and FactoryTalk VantagePoint software from Rockwell Automation.

Like many industries, manufacturing is going mobile. International Data Corporation predicts the global mobile workforce will increase to over one billion workers in 2011, totaling 30 percent of the workforce worldwide.

In the U.S., numbers are higher still. A total of 70 percent of the American workforce will be mobile in 2012. Laptops securely connected to corporate servers, BlackBerrys, and iPhones are commonplace and increasingly necessary for a fast-paced mobile workforce.

However, their influence on the plant floor has been less complete than in the business world, primarily due to potential security risks and lack of plant-floor applications associated with these devices.

We’re still a long way from manufacturing facilities that can be monitored and controlled remotely, but technology advances and business pressures are allowing and requiring a more flexible and mobile view into production.

The Drive to Go Mobile
Today, many operators are expected to assist in maintenance and systems engineering. Maintenance engineers often have duties at many plants across a sizable territory. They need quick and secure access to machine diagnostics and operational information from equipment at each of the locations. This coincides with the ongoing drive for leaner, more profitable manufacturing operations.

At the same time, businesses need more ways to share data between the manufacturing and business functions. To make the most informed business decision, employees need role-specific information, from production schedules and throughput data, to customer demand and raw market price information.

In addition, newer hires expect a level of usability similar to that of their own personal technological devices. The plant floor is just beginning to tap into commercial mobile devices as one means to address these challenges.

Over the past year, Aurora has implemented the Aurora Mobile Apps with three customers piloting iPads to expand their visualization system. Three more projects are in development.

How it Works
As Aurora designs systems with FactoryTalk View, FactoryTalk ViewPoint or FactoryTalk VantagePoint software as part of an application, it lays the ground work for a scalable, web-enabled visualization architecture.
• FactoryTalk View software provides distributed-server/multi-user applications for maximum control over information.
• FactoryTalk ViewPoint software allows secure access to this system through an Internet browser, leveraging the Microsoft Silverlight platform.
• FactoryTalk VantagePoint software aggregates multiple data sources from the control system then creates a simple and graphical way to display key performance indicators (KPIs).

The app extends these visualization capabilities from Rockwell Automation anywhere where cell phone or wireless service is available.

Many FactoryTalk ViewPoint users have found significant value in the ability to remotely access their system via popular Internet browsers. Aurora Mobile Apps enable FactoryTalk ViewPoint functionality through Apple devices, while providing us with insight into how consumer mobile devices can best leverage existing manufacturing systems and software.

Advantages of Mobile Apps
In the initial trials of this pilot program, we’ve observed the benefits that these new technologies can bring. For those plant employees who are only able to be on site part-time, the ability to see the plant’s current operations has proven very attractive.

Business-level employees using FactoryTalk VantagePoint software to see pertinent KPIs are becoming accustomed to immediate access to information and tend to be a key driver in this type of project. The ability to see pertinent information from the manufacturing level even when they are without internet access, has large benefits for executives with hefty travel schedules.

Additionally, mobility on the plant floor has proven to be a huge asset. For example, working off an iPad allows workers to access production metrics as they walk throughout the line to carry out visual inspections. This can reduce both effort and errors. Previously, these workers did their rounds with clip boards, recording information manually and inputting it into the system once they returned to a wired workstation.

With Aurora Mobile Apps on the iPad, they can view the same information they would see via the FactoryTalk View application on their PC or inline HMIs. They can access digital information from anywhere in the plant, and can connect directly to other online assets to take action on or simply record what they see. Another benefit is the iPad’s battery life. A charge can last up to 10 hours compared with just a few hours of battery life on a laptop. On the factory floor, the iPad battery could last a couple of days depending on usage.

Security Challenges
The Aurora Mobile Apps is wrapped into the larger solutions we offer our customers. Eventually, it could be available free via the iTunes app library.

However, to be effective in an industrial setting, the iPad and other tablet and consumer devices will require improvements. They will need to be made more robust, with an encasing that can withstand rugged use and hazardous locations.

Most importantly, they need better security features like improved user access control, tracking usage and the ability to lock down features.

The read-only functionality option built into VantagePoint and ViewPoint help mitigate major security issues with a mobile application. It is clear that read-only displays of visualization applications can bring users the real-time data they need to stay plugged-in on the road, in the office or on the plant floor.

To view a demonstration of a virtualized FactoryTalk View prototype on an iPad at the 2010 Automation Fair® event, please visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEKFgr8xMmc.

For more information on manufacturing intelligence, please visit: http://discover.rockwellautomation.com/information.

About Aurora Industrial Automation
Aurora Industrial Automation has over 20 years experience engineering complex Industrial Control systems. Engineers at Aurora evaluate customers’ process to provide the automated control system that best meets each user’s unique needs. Aurora is part of the Rockwell Automation Information Solutions Partner Program, a group of elite Systems Integrators that demonstrate design, deliver and support competency around FactoryTalk® manufacturing intelligence solutions. These specialized partners possess capabilities to deploy the production management and performance solutions successfully that integrate with both IT and plant-floor control layers.

Automation Fair and FactoryTalk are trademarks of Rockwell Automation, Inc. Trademarks not belonging to Rockwell Automation are property of their respective companies.

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