Manufacturing On the Move

Oct. 1, 2008
Mobile wireless devices, systems and software are changing the way the manufacturing world works, promising more work in less time, and offering new ways to do old things—and more importantly, new ways to do new things.

What do you really mean by the mobile workforce? It is a little unclear, because mobile workers have gained a lot of attention in the last few years. Now, any employee in motion at any time for any function, even driving to work, has been shoehorned into the definition, and any technology from a long extension cord to a scooter is being sold as a critical component.

But mobile workers in the industrial segment have begun to receive their own spotlight, because wireless communication alternatives are adding to production possibilities. “Wireless has been part of larger plants for a long time,” says Julie Fraser, principal industry analyst, Cambashi Inc., a Cummaquid, Mass.-based consulting firm. “But until recently, it was all mobile radios or walkie-talkies. Now there are other options.”

Ten months ago, when this series on wireless technology began, there was plenty of evidence of a conservative approach to adoption. Yes, wireless transmitters have been on the industrial scene for more than five years, and, of course, two-way radio has been around for decades. But there was still more than a hint of reluctance.

That has changed, according to Soroush Amidi, marketing manager for wireless solutions, Honeywell Process Solutions, an automation supplier based in Phoenix. “There are so many companies on board, so many end-users, that people have become comfortable about the use of wireless for monitoring and data transmission.” In fact, he predicts, “Level 1 control wireless is coming. It’s just a matter of time.”

Truth is, as 2008 winds down, if you have a job to do and you need instant (or continuous) data communications, there are no lack of wireless products and applications to help you. These range from generic, all-purpose computers of all sizes, to specific point-solution products.

Ruggedized portable computers with built-in 802.11 Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) offer complete generic functionality. At the other end of the spectrum, highly-focused, hand-held scanner-based solutions for inventory or in-process transactions have been available for decades, and the addition of a radio is no big deal. Armed with a radio, such devices can give you instant transmission of inventory or production data in real time, instead of batched download at collection points. And you cannot forget those radios that decorate nearly every ear everywhere, the mobile phone—properly herded and corralled, their profusion of features (from photography to global positioning to e-mail to multimedia playback and, oh yes, voice transmission) can be wrangled into serious use in production environments.

“We’re seeing wireless move into more and more production areas,” Fraser says. “Troubleshooting and maintenance is one. Another is direct, remote connection to console or engineering functions. The upshot is that a domain expert can sit in on problem-solving or changes in production parameters, even though the expert might be a building, town or continent away.”

Burgeoning use of wireless devices has led to burgeoning infrastructures, so the range of coverage is now nearly limitless. Global positioning and geographical information devices offer a view of the location, direction and speed of any mobile operator virtually anywhere, from over-the-road truckers to repair crews in the north forty. The biggest problem for the network administrator today is not how to extend the reach of the network, but how to impose the right circumference on a network that is forever threatening to merge seamlessly with other, more or less random networks far and wide.

The real question is: what is the mobile workforce in manufacturing? Few of us face the plight of the salesperson on the 17th green, who needs to have signature-ready printouts by the time the foursome reaches the clubhouse. And few have the need to send reports to the global executive team from a seat 38,000 feet up. No, manufacturing has more circumscribed, earth-bound jobs to do, and mobility is increasing.

There have always been mobile workers, of course. As Fraser says, many traditionally mobile workers in manufacturing have long ago been armed with remote, radio-based devices. This includes personnel who remain under the roof, working in controls, inventory, tool rooms, maintenance and other such areas. And, it includes those roaming the land outside the production facility, looking for new wells and new sources of ores, or en route with a shipment, or simply trying to find a railcar somewhere on this or that siding.

Wireless has offered these traditionally nomadic people with immediate connection to home bases for quite some time. Those bases range from the dispatching shed to networks controlled by manufacturing requirements or enterprise resource planning (MRP/ERP) systems. For the most part, wireless has not greatly changed their work, even if the connector on the back of the thing in their hand has changed into a stub antenna, and dataflow reaches its destination in real time.

There are ultimately two categories of mobile applications. The first is that of the rationalization and control of existing processes that, prior to wireless, were incompletely covered or covered only with non-valued-added aspects, such as the time lost walking to a station and looking something up. The second is the creation of new processes and workflows that have been newly enabled by wireless—or, putting that more directly, using the potential of wireless to handle, in new ways, the seemingly limitless problems that beset production.

At one time, discrete manufacturing was done at static workstations. Process manufacturing more often than not literally set its equipment in concrete. Efficiency was making the same thing at high rates over periods of years. The greater the mass in the mass production, the bigger and better the efficiency. With the exception of a few mobile workers, everyone was expected to punch in, move to their workstations and stay there, breaks and lunch excepted.

Then the process side found the advantages of skidded equipment: you can (relatively speaking) quickly shift production and thus accommodate growing ranges of products when basic equipment is modularized and movable. In roughly the same time frame, discrete manufacturing discovered that custom products appealed to new generations of picky purchasers, so it came up with efficiency-enhanced medium- and small-lot manufacturing, using flexible systems and quickly configured workstations.

The result is a lot of movement, a growing army of production personnel that evolved away from static assignments into mobile ones. The mobility now makes perfect sense: assets and workstations move around a facility as they are plugged and unplugged from ever-changing line configurations, and so must the people. Plus, people are now wearing ever more hats as their numbers decline, filling ever more functions as short-run production becomes more complex.

“The reality is that everything is moving toward mobility,” says Luc Roy, vice president of mobile enterprise, Siemens Enterprise Communications, based in Boca Raton, Fla. The unit supplies communications technologies including software and services for enterprises of all sizes, focusing on the means to include as many devices, networks and information technology (IT) infrastructures as possible. “People have a plant to run, not a desk or a station,” Roy says. “The horizon has changed as well—where it used to extend only to the loading dock, the need for visibility has spread well beyond any one facility and deeply into supply chains.”

“You don’t want to lose a skid for a day or two,” Roy points out. “When you think about it, you can see a need for both real-time inventory and real-time asset management—and in a number of cases, real-time location.”

David Ochoa, director, planning division, asset optimization, for automation vendor Emerson Process Management, Austin, Texas, adds, “Wireless asset tracking locates people and optimizes workflows. You can gain significant benefit from ad hoc access to information about where a movable asset is, or where people are at any point in time. If a wireless device knows where it is via global positioning or barcode scan, you can retrieve what you need immediately, where previously, you might have had to call the control room or go look it up.”

“All workers are becoming mobile at one point or other,” says Neil Peterson, DeltaV product manager for wireless and enterprise integration, Emerson Process Management, in Eden Prairie, Minn. “Other situations apply, as well, such as safety incidents. You need to find and contact any no-shows for these, and that’s a perfect wireless application. Plus, we have users who manage a number of needs this way, from stroking a valve or calibrating equipment, to taking a piece of equipment offline, to control room notification.”

A final and major benefit for the everyday mobile worker is that wireless helps improve data integrity. “Data has become the lifeblood of production,” says Honeywell’s Amidi. “You need to push data to the workforce, and you need to pull data from the workforce into control or maintenance. In the past, people went out with paper, logged the data, then came back to enter it into whatever system was at a desktop. It would take a day or more to get into the database, and you never knew whether the numbers were mistyped. With wireless, you’re not waiting an entire shift. Instead, you have the information in real time, and the numbers are right. And nobody has to walk to the control room.”

To this point, we have been discussing basic production needs, the everyday kind of work that keeps a facility running, in relation to wireless. But there’s an interesting new trend: new solutions to old problems made possible by wireless, plus a growing number of new ways to do work that either increase efficiency or drive down costs. This article began by pointing out that a growing segment in manufacturing has become comfortable with wireless, and out of that comfort comes new vantage points and new ideas.

One enabler of new things is an eclectic approach to the wireless environment—in other words, make everything connect, from the top of the organization to the bottom. This definitely flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that factory traffic is completely different from enterprise traffic, and you should never mix the two.

Now, there is nothing wrong with conventional wisdom, because quarantining wireless in the factory adds a layer of security. It also simplifies system planning and design, and helps to focus whatever applications of wireless you want to put in place.

That said, at the same time, the vectors of manufacturing IT and enterprise IT are on convergence. Purveyors of ERP systems are gaining their way into the manufacturing space: SAP AG, for example, the Walldorf, Germany-based ERP vendor, acquired Lighthammer manufacturing performance software a few years ago and this year acquired manufacturing execution system (MES) maker Visiprise. At the same time, manufacturing controls and software providers have been working their way into the enterprise space, as with Milwaukee automation supplier Rockwell Automation Inc.’s tie-in with Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., around Ethernet, and Emerson Process Management’s tie-in with, again, Cisco, for wireless systems.

The Siemens Enterprise Communications approach is an example of this tools-for-everyone philosophy. “The devices have to be focused,” points out Roy, “but when you use the same software, you can unify the systems they feed, bringing them across that line where the carpet ends. And you can take them outdoors, even down in mines, or roam using cellular.”

Standards compliance is complex in such a system. “We ask new customers what they want to do, rather than what technology they want,” Roy says. “Basically, we want them to be creative, even be unrealistic. We urge them to consider all mobility solutions, whether that’s Wi-Fi, or proprietary or whatever. We feel that the chief enabler is a unified communication client on top that acts as an orchestrator, pulling in all the contributory technologies.”

Roy cites another customer, also a food manufacturer, that uses wireless to monitor equipment condition in real time. “When a line goes down, major dollars are involved,” he says. “With the wireless system, nobody has to run to a desk and look up a number. Instead, a team can be on the scene in direct contact with engineering support, and they can even use their cell phones to take a picture of what’s happening.”

The same customer achieved overall payback in less than a year, not with the maintenance facet, but with wireless replacement of printed work orders. “Before, they had to walk to a station and printer, print out the work order, and walk back to production,” Roy explains. “Today, there’s no walking and no paper involved in order fulfillment.”

“Wireless allows one of our customers, a major refiner and energy company, to keep a real-time view of its tank farms,” says Honeywell’s Amidi. “The field workers can see operational changes immediately, find any alarm info and get the same view on what’s happening that they’d get at the console. Plus, they have quick access to schematics and other critical information, on the spot. In effect, they’re taking the console with them.”

Amidi says that in particular, wireless is being used for new kinds of jobs. “With an older workforce being depleted by retirement, companies are scrambling to find ways to run plants with fewer people,” he observes. “Job functions and basic organization are changing as a result. In this environment, communication and information retrieval times are under close scrutiny—the faster people can connect and the faster they can get drawings or data they need, the better. The necessary video and audio for this are already part of cellular technology, and it’s being rapidly implemented in other forms of hand-held equipment.”

“We’re finding new efficiencies in such highly regulated domains as food and pharma,” says Emerson’s Peterson. “When you have to validate that certain manual operations have taken place, and that properly trained operators did the work, wireless offers tremendous advantages. Field personnel can move from task to task and document each step in real time, in lockstep with other processes in the plant.”

Emerson customer Celulosa Arauco, in Neuva Aldea, Chile, uses wireless as a key part of its highly automated pulping mill, which employs Emerson’s’ PlantWeb digital and DeltaV communications architectures. For example, equipment calibration times have been reduced dramatically—control center calibration for 30 motors now requires half a day, whereas previously, it took two weeks to a month. The scale of the plant is huge: employing several thousand, the facility’s capacity is 856,000 tons of kraft pulp a year. “The real gain,” Peterson points out, “is that the person at a machine or valve has access to all the information and can do what’s needed in as short a time as possible. This way, there are no wasted resources.”

As for the future? Most agree that wireless video is going to be a major feature, and that it is just off-stage. “High-definition video is already at work in mobile applications in medical, in carts that go from patient to patient,” says Roy. “That allows centralized diagnosis, where the best and the brightest don’t have to be at the bedside to resolve difficult situations. If you substitute a piece of critical equipment for ‘patient’ and repair strategies for ‘diagnosis,’ you begin to see great potential for maintenance applications alone.”

The growing proliferation of mobile wireless applications, not surprisingly, is driving an ever-increasing attention to, and products for, wireless security. You are, after all, broadcasting—transmitting electromagnetic energy through the air—and you want all the listening posts to be under your control. In the long run, as standards settle down, new products and types emerge, and applications proliferate, wireless is by definition a primary technology for any function that has to be in motion. And it is just getting started.

Automation World has extensively covered industrial wireless topics. To see more, search terms ISA100, WirelessHart or wireless at

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