The Factory of the Future Will Be Controlled by Tablets

The idea of tablet-controlled processes might bring skepticism, but there are a few reasons—consumer-based expectations, relevance and lifecycle management—why they're already here.

William Aja, Panacea Technologies
William Aja, Panacea Technologies

Before you grab your pitchfork as many industry professionals might like to, hear me out. Tablet-controlled factories are becoming a reality, and thin client adoption was the first step.

From our own experience, we launched a tablet-controlled Benchtop Bioreactor that has been received extremely well. Users love it for its nontraditional interface, and we firmly believe you’ll love tablet-based human-machine interfaces (HMIs) too. The idea of tablet-controlled processes will bring skepticism and chuckles, but there are three distinct reasons we believe their adoption rate will increase.

Technology that imitates consumer life

Almost everything in an operator’s consumer life can be controlled with a tablet or phone, nowadays. There are tablet-controlled coffee makers, you can change your thermostat from your phone, and almost every home has a tablet that is used to interact with the outside world.

The fact is that operators use a common platform to control vastly different processes in their own lives with ease, yet they go to “state of the art” factories where each system can be segmented, lacking mobility, or isolated from other systems.

Current technology shapes the expectations of everyone, and industry members are already asking why the technology gap is so large; soon, they will be demanding that it narrow. Being able to train staff on technologies they already know how to use will decrease training costs and help create a more fluid workforce. It will also help drive innovation in other areas and processes. When people begin push innovation in their HMIs, they will find places to push innovation elsewhere too.

Relevance

Current software packages that enable tablet-based HMIs have an impressive and extensive set of tools that enable the correct users to get the correct access and control in the proper areas. This is in contrast to the reality for many manufacturers—shared usernames and passwords that allow any operator to log in to a piece of equipment, with little ability for traceability and electronic records with respect to logins.

Distributed supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) packages allow us to tie login and access credentials directly to the Windows domain, and thin client software packages allow us to set up geofencing, which is a way to draw virtual boundaries that define who gets access to what based on where they are. This means that, as an operator for a specific process area (let’s call it PA1), not only can you access only PA1, you can access it only when you are physically located within it. If you went to a second process area (PA2), you would not be able to access PA2, but you also wouldn’t be able to access PA1 from PA2.

Control is as easy as walking up to a machine, taking a picture of a QR code on the front of it to allow access, and staying in the designated geofence while performing operations. We do this for our Benchtop Bioreactor product to not only streamline operations, but also to eliminate a bunch of HMIs scattered around a lab or production facility, taking up valuable real estate.

Lifecycle management

Tablet-based HMIs effectively decouple the hardware from the software application. This eliminates reliance on short lifecycles often associated with physical HMIs. Features like flexible aspect ratios and resolutions mean that if a tablet breaks, replacement only takes a couple of minutes as opposed to downtime of several hours or days.

If you decide you want to standardize on a new type of tablet, you could replace every single tablet in an hour from unboxing to being usable. At a few hundred dollars, replacing a tablet is far less expensive than replacing a typical HMI. There is also a plethora of rugged and hardened cleanroom-approved and explosion-proof cases that make deployments in any environment a trivial matter.

Whether you are looking for increased security, better access control or a way to standardize hardware and decrease migration costs, moving to a thin client architecture has always been a no-brainer. Taking the next step to a tablet-controlled factory might seem farfetched, but it’s already happening. As younger generations enter the workforce, the demand for tablets on the plant floor will only increase.

William Aja is vice president of customer operations at Panacea Technologies Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Panacea, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

 

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