Industry Interrupted: Tablets and Smart Phones Poised to Make a Big Impact

Nov. 6, 2012
Industrial IT teams are likely to rail against the use of mobile devices, but many equipment makers feel they are fighting against the tide to ignore them. Productivity will ultimately determine which side will win.

Apple isn’t likely to become a player in harsh industrial environments, but its reach is extending into many factories. Tablets and smart phones are becoming a part of the control and monitoring technologies in a growing number of plants.

Whether they’re from Apple, the many Android suppliers or other manufacturers, these handheld devices are expected to continue the trend that began when users started toting laptops around. The latest generation of handhelds makes it even easier for operators and technicians to gather data when they’re right next to the equipment. Companies that embrace the use of tablets and smart phones feel they’re continuing a trend that took off when companies started using Ethernet.

“Automation companies that adopt consumer electronics technologies early will have an edge,” says Erik Nieves, technology director at the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America (, Miamisburg, Ohio. “The robotics industry isn’t large enough to drive technology, we have to use advances made in other areas.”

Suppliers throughout the industrial automation field predict that handhelds will see significant growth. Many predict that equipment operators and technicians will hasten the advance by using their own devices instead of waiting for management to acquire tablets or phones.

“Bring your own device has become a hot topic,” says Ben Orchard, systems engineer at Opto 22 (, Temecula, Calif. “It’s inevitable that people will bring these devices in, so companies need a set of programs and rules so this can happen without creating big problems.”

Many information technology teams are likely to rail against the use of personal devices. But many equipment makers feel they will be fighting against the tide. Productivity will ultimately determine which side will win.

“Rather than discouraging personal devices, companies should encourage it,” says Paul Brooks, Rockwell Automation’s ( business development manager for networks in Milwaukee. “If it’s banned, people will say they can’t be as productive as they’d like. It will be hard for IT people to win that argument.”

The latest generation of handhelds will augment existing systems, not displace them. Human machine interfaces will continue as the mainstay of controls, and notebooks should continue to see use in applications that demand more capabilities than tablets can provide.

We do not expect smartphones and tablets to completely replace traditional mobile computers, as some companies will need a more robust solution, says Lisa London, senior product marketing manager at Honeywell Scanning & Mobility ( We foresee mixed environments, where some applications will stick with a traditional mobile computer/handheld device and other applications will use a tablet coupled with additional software and enterprise sleds that provide protection and added durability.

Changes to networks and policies
To realize productivity gains, network designers and plant managers will have to make changes to their networks as well as their corporate policies. Wireless networks with uninterrupted coverage will have to be linked tightly with the Ethernet backbone. Companies will also have to figure out how to let employees work freely to improve their efficiency.

“Tablets and smart phones work very well as a dashboard so people can look at live data remotely,” Nieves says. “I’m very bullish on the role apps can play. Any time you can increase access to information about the production system, you get a lot of benefits. These apps democratize data and let users do anything they like with that data.”

>> Future of Industrial Computing: In this video, Gary Mintchell, Co-founder and Editor in Chief, ponders industrial computing and thin clients. Visit

Some apps will come from suppliers, others will be written by employees. Companies will probably want to establish some vetting for programs from individuals. It’s likely that app stores that focus on industrial environments will pop up soon, providing a way for companies to pick software that has gone through some testing. Some equipment vendors are already offer apps written for automation engineers and technicians.

“We’ve created an Android app that helps with wiring,” says Benson Hougland, vice president at Opto 22. “In the past, someone would wire something in a panel, then run back to the controller to see if everything was working right. To be in the field using the tablet as a calibration device and check the wiring is very helpful.”

Tablets and smart phones can bring many benefits, but they also bring additional challenges. One is to deal with an almost inevitable occurrence, the loss or theft of a tablet that’s been connected to the corporate network.

“Potential loss of a device can be a big concern,” Orchard says. “Many products have remote wipe and remote lock if they’re lost. Many also have ways to track the device if it’s lost. It will be interesting to see if something like two-way authentication happens in industrial environments.”

One way to avoid problems like this is to ensure that users can’t download information that could cause problems if it is stolen. One technique is to dedicate handhelds only to data monitoring. Sometimes, these changes may require some upgrades to the existing network infrastructure.

“One way to protect this data is through virtualization,” Brooks says. “Instead of a device being a thick device, make it a thin device that can only display information, not store it. That’s doable because most portables have a virtual client. Very frequently, we find that employing virtualization requires an upgrade to the infrastructure, for example fault tolerant wireless LANs with no dropouts.”

Whether tablets will advance beyond data collection to take over control of equipment remains uncertain. Some proponents feel that it will be difficult to use the latest handhelds in harsh environments unless or until a company figures out how to ruggedize equipment without adding much cost.

“You need something with an ingress protection (IP) rating. Even if you put a tablet in a nice case, it’s not IP protected,” says Nieves. “If someone spills solvent on one, it’s done. If you add enough protection, you might as well start with an HMI that has a factory-grade IP rating.”

Protecting the network
Whenever new devices come into industrial environs, data security comes into the picture. Tablets and smart phones have many of the conventional security issues related to wireless networking and portable devices.

“Other threats, such as the employee who is angry and wants to get back at his boss, warrant attention. Password rotation, MAC address filtering, and a sane security policy in the environment should mitigate the risks,” says Dan Fenton, control and software marketing specialist at Phoenix Contact (

These security policies must be expanded when employees use their personal equipment. These devices bring a much different challenge. Privately-owned handhelds typically won’t be authorized nor will they run only company-sanctioned software. Perhaps even more importantly, these devices can easily be removed from the facility without any safeguards to protect information that’s going outside corporate walls.

“Security is a huge issue,” Brooks says. “Not so much virus protection, it’s more security of intellectual property. If someone uses a personal tablet, you lose the security that comes with a company-owned laptop that’s equipped with security. Companies need to figure out how to control information going into and out of the facility.”

Network developers must integrate security plans for tablets into existing security systems. Of paramount importance is to ensure that these personal devices can’t get into the network unless they are carried by authorized users. Once these users are in the network, they must be governed by the protective schemes that prevent users from straying into areas that are outside their purview.

The need for and importance of failsafe authentication is more important than ever, London says. Passwords have become only a part of the security process. Firewalls, multiple device management software and signature tokens are important to the security of mobile devices.

Those steps must be taken even when handhelds are used only to monitor devices. When tablets are used to actually control equipment on the floor, managers must ratchet up the level of protection. At the same time, network developers need to make sure that their wireless links meet all the requirements necessary for devices that manage equipment.

“For tablets to take control of equipment, you first need a mission critical wireless infrastructure so you can be confident that a critical message will arrive in a timely manner,” Brooks says. “You also need security. Typically, if you’re not employing encryption and other security steps at all times, you shouldn’t let tablets and smart phones take command.”

Building in the necessary security isn’t something to be taken lightly. In this era of open networks that go throughout the enterprise, it’s increasingly important that IT departments get in on the act. IT personnel have typically been involved in wireless communications and handheld devices for a fair while, so they will usually have a fair amount of experience and knowledge in these areas.

“Industrial folks often create their own networks so IT is not involved,” Orchard says. “When you’re putting industrial information into the ether with wireless, security is always a potential stumbling block. It takes a different set of skills to put together a secure wireless network, so it’s important to get IT involved.”

Once employees start using tablets and phones inside the facility, they’ll doubtless want to use them when they’re in other areas. Managers who are traveling or at home can easily tap into corporate networks to check on things or troubleshoot problems. But it takes some planning to grant access only over secure connections.

“One of the best situations you can have is to provide security by using a virtual private network (VPN),” Hougland says. “That provides a single point of entry and it provides secure http traffic.”

While developers stress the need for high levels of security, many note that the job may not be as daunting as it can sound. Many aspects of security are already built into network schemes, so users don’t have to do a lot beyond setting up their parameters. That’s beneficial for network designers who might look at the many facets of protection and decide it’s easier to just skip it completely.

“There’s a lot of security built into wireless networks,” Hougland says. “It’s not absolutely bulletproof but most include protocols like Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2). Another thing people can do is to use https if you’re going to use http at all. That prevents snooping.”

The necessary level of security can also be lowered by limiting the access level of tablets. These handhelds can be set up so they are limited to viewing data, not changing any parameters on the equipment. When they’re only used as monitors, the security requirements are far lower.

“If the tablet is simply providing insight into published data, security is not an issue, assuming companies don’t make public information they don’t want seen,” Nieves says. “If you use tablets in the HMI, security plays a major role in the design considerations.”

Others note that phones and tablets usually use their own operating systems, so many viruses and other maladies won’t move onto industrial architectures. Viruses written for Apple or Android platforms generally won’t impact other operating systems. But that’s a general rule, and it may change as tablets and PCs begin sharing more technologies.

“Many of the threats from common mobile devices won’t transfer to PC operating systems, due to different architectures. Whether this will change as the two combine, such as the case of Windows 8, will have to be watched closely,” Fenton says. “Regardless of what happens there, some sort of training for operators to prevent social engineering attacks will have to be undertaken.”

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