Industrial Mobile Apps: Who's Using Them and Why

An exclusive Automation World survey reveals the smartphone and tablet apps manufacturers are using today to more easily do their jobs.

Industrial Mobile Apps Who's Using Them and Why
Industrial Mobile Apps Who's Using Them and Why

Search. Collaborate. Read and respond. Configure and control. Having a computer in hand, in the form of a smartphone or tablet, lets engineers and technicians do all that today from wherever they are.

At Bayer Corp. in Pittsburgh, Pa., electrical engineer Chris McCartney says his company has used the Tatsoft SCADA HMI Client native iOS app “for almost a year now and it has proved very  helpful. We use the app to monitor our gas detection devices, but we also use a few controls in the app that allow us to remotely silence the alarms. Supervisors are enjoying the fact that they can see alarms in real time right on their iPhones, no matter where they are located.”

Laptop computers and email started the untethering, of course, but the proliferation of mobile devices has already changed the way many workers get their jobs done. Industrial plants may be slow to embrace the wireless technology, but the business managers, engineers and technicians have seen the light—that soft glow of productivity enhancement beckoning from their handheld devices.

Operators and value stream managers at the Hillshire Brands (www.hillshirebrands.com) food plant in Haltom City, Texas, for example, are now able to monitor any area of production—packaging status, cook temperature or frying capacity—from the palm of their hands, says Jon Riechert, senior engineer for innovation at the corporate level of Hillshire Brands. They use the FactoryTalk VantagePoint mobile app from Rockwell Automation (www.rockwellautomation.com), which provides a native Microsoft Windows 8.1 experience for accessing centralized reporting and analytics from the Rockwell Software FactoryTalk software suite.

“Mobilizing the solution unties area managers from the machine or control-room monitors, and allows them to better manage their zones and collaborate across production areas,” says Riechert. “Plus, with anytime access to real-time and historical production data and trends, operators can see where there are problems, where problems might potentially arise, or where additional capacity exists to increase production or run an alternative product.”

Within the VantagePoint app, users view key performance indicators (KPIs) such as energy use, OEE or mean time between failure/to repair. Users can also pin a KPI to a live tile so the  metric is always visible from the Windows 8.1 start screen. Hillshire Brands users also can send KPI information to coworkers simply by swiping to bring up the Windows share charm; the  selected KPI is then ready to send to anyone in their contact list, says Riechert.

As more industrial users make the leap into the mobility movement (see our article on the digital infrastructure supporting industrial mobile applications at http://awgo.to/ugsZu), it got us to thinking: What mobile applications are helping engineers and other industrial workers get their jobs done today? Automation World’s 2014 Industrial Mobility Survey, conducted in July 2014, answered that question by focusing on industrial mobile applications that run on workers’ smartphones and tablets. Here’s what we learned.

Today’s use of smartphones and tablets in the plant or for remote access to plant-floor machines and data varies widely. Responses ranged from “none/never” to “use mostly web-enabled pages and email access via iPhone” to “I use too many [mobile apps] to list here.” When asked how often they access work-related information via a mobile device, 39 percent said, “always—once a day or more” and 23 percent use mobile devices “often.” Eighteen percent use them “seldom—not every week.”

‘Keeps me in control all the time’

Respondents called mobile apps “a must-have tool” that “keeps me in control all the time,” and “a great tool that allows a quicker response to our customers’ and technicians’ needs.” Even a respondent who admits “very little real-time exposure/experience as of now,” says mobile apps “can be vital for safety and critical application support, enabling significant cost savings, system support, possibly limiting downtime, scrap material, etc.”

We also asked respondents what types of work tasks they perform with a mobile device. Almost half (48 percent) say they read and respond to people or machines, while slightly less (44 percent) report that they use smartphones and tablets for read-only tasks, such as monitoring alerts. Thirty percent search for information, while only 12 percent say they actually connect to a machine or system to configure or control its function.

Said one respondent: “I mostly [use] PDF copies of manuals while on the production floor. [I also] use the camera a lot to record operator displays, especially for Fanuc robots.”

Not surprisingly, we found that many general-purpose apps are used on the plant floor. Gmail, Skype, Calendar and You-Tube were mentioned, as were utilities like a magnifier or a flashlight. But many respondents mentioned apps specific to industrial applications. One respondent in the chemical industry reports using Pipe-Tools by Bri-Chem; Sling Safety by Bullivants; Pump Calc by Specific Speed Enterprises; Crane Signals by SC&RA; B31.3 Pipe Wall, Piping Database and Steam Tools by Sparax; Logic Op, iPressure and Moisture Calc by GE; fiber optic loss by FOA; Convertbot, Eng Units Converter, InchCalc+ and Concentration by Lanmark Engineering; Chemical Engineering by ChE Suite; and Base Converter by SayWare.

Apps that handle specific industrial tasks are available for devices running iOS, Android and Windows mobile operating systems, as well as common browsers. One respondent mentioned an app for remote viewing of HMI screens for tank storage facilities from Wonderware (now part of Schneider Electric (www.schneiderelectric.com) ). Another uses “a hazardous environment status and alarming app with gas detectors for critical safety equipment monitoring.” A third said, “We have a few in-house mobile applications for handling work orders and purchase orders, as well as preventative maintenance and inventory.”

Many apps have been developed by automation suppliers, industrial software vendors and others, and they are often available for free from regular consumer app stores. But you have to know they exist before you can search for them. That’s why, in addition to our survey, Automation World has compiled a new electronic resource for industrial users. Part online directory, part testimonial to the benefits of mobility, Automation World’s Industrial Mobility Guide is a compilation of descriptions, links and use cases describing how actual engineers, technicians and industrial business managers are using mobile applications.

Where it started, where it’s going

Product selection tools were some of the first apps to go mobile. Bosch Rexroth (www.boschrexroth.com) and Schneider Electric are two of many automation suppliers that enable mobile access to searchable product catalogs, multimedia product information and links to make purchasing easier. Another category of industrial mobile app is product configurators and programming tools. These digitize and streamline the startup and maintenance of drives, controllers and other components, and securely store parameters in the cloud for retrieval at any time.

The recently released teknikol Commander app, for example, provides HART users a professional HART configuration and calibration tool in their pocket. Traditionally, similar HART tools have been available only on large PCs or bulky hardware. Now, users can communicate with their HART field devices using any Bluetooth-enabled Android device. The Commander app allows the user to quickly search for devices, then read dynamic device variables (PV, SV, TV, QV), loop current, ranges, damping, messages, tags and more. Users can tap on any editable field to change its value. The app even provides Namur device diagnostic capabilities.

Also new is Sealevel Modbus Connect, a free app for iOS 7 that allows communication with ModModbus TCP-compatible products from Sealevel. Use it to access the registers and coils of a Modbus device from a connected iPhone or iPad. The app includes low-level Modbus support that separates the hardware data acquisition layer from the software application layer, simplifying setup and configuration. Users also can send custom Modbus requests and access raw request and response frames.

Given the easy-to-use video capabilities of mobile devices, video-based applications are popping up as well. The Tatsoft SCADA HMI Client used by Bayer allows integration of mobile-device cameras, which can be used to read barcodes to track products, operators, maintenance tasks and machinery locations. The camera can also be used to capture images for documentation purposes. Fluke Connect, an app from test-tool maker Fluke (www.fluke.com), uses video to enable collaboration, letting remote users see real-time measurements and machine operations.

Mobile HMIs and SCADA screens are not only a common type of mobile app, they’re also at the top of the list of apps AW survey respondents most want to use. Commented one respondent, “A mobile HMI reduces communication errors between people by allowing the field operator to access the same data as the control room operator.” Said another, “It’s quite convenient for me if I can connect to the SCADA system with my cellphone. It is great if it comes with some functions to diagnose the machine condition and performance.”

Limiting Factors

The consensus about mobile apps in industry was summed up well by one respondent who said mobile apps have “provided avenues for engineers and plant operators to react to process conditions while optimizing efficiency. [They are] also great for sales, as they are able to access ready information to close a deal.”

Despite the overall popularity of mobile apps, however, not everyone is on board. As one respondent put it, mobile apps are “for the most part, non-useful gadgetry.” “Clunky and under-powered for the task,” said another. “They are woefully behind the times in both technology and feature/functionality,” contends a third. Security is a key concern for many. “I find remote operation of HMIs (with mobile apps)—other than just monitoring—to be risky in some cases,” said one. “My main concern is about security and hacking—operational systems could be threatened by a specific virus,” said another.

Bring your own device (BYOD) policies are being developed that address the risks, but with security concerns in mind, it pays to ask your app provider how security is handled. With Bayer’s Tatsoft SCADA HMI Client, for example, the connection with the server has validation at the project level. This means that, besides having the server address and project name, the user name and password provided when running the application must match the authorization defined in the running project.

Beyond these concerns, a quarter of respondents report that their company policy prohibits use of commercial mobile devices, and 9 percent say company policy prohibits a specific app they’d like to use. One respondent, who works at a company where app use is not allowed, noted: “We connect to various servers such as Emerson AMS, OSIsoft PI server, and documents such as P&IDs and instrument manuals on a file and print server. We are only allowed to use NFPA NEC Class 1, Div. 2 certified mobile devices in the plant,so our device choices do not include consumer devices such as an iPad or Android devices.”

Even more telling about current attitudes regarding industrial apps is that 41 percent of respondents say they prefer their laptop or desktop system. Nevertheless, 50 percent said what really prevents them from using more work-related apps is that they “haven’t found the app they need.”

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