Mobile HMIs Aid a Workforce on the Move

Feb. 12, 2013
Because phones, tablets and other mobile devices can squeeze latency and other waste from processes, they are rapidly becoming serious tools for manufacturing.

When it takes 10 to15 minutes to traverse the plant by bike, it simply doesn’t make sense to drop everything each time the automated machinery broadcasts an alert. Not every developing problem is urgent enough to receive immediate attention.

For one global manufacturer of high-end consumer electronics, the technicians overseeing the machines couldn’t afford the time to pedal back and forth across the huge facility just to check a machine’s human-machine interface (HMI).

Because the radio messages contained too little detail for prioritizing their responses, the technicians would often finish what they were doing at the time and then check the HMI when they got around to it. The result was an unacceptably high amount of downtime, especially as the volume of production began increasing to satisfy rising consumer demand.

“They were unable to look into the nature of the problem and prioritize their responses accordingly,” explains Ian Tooke, manufacturing IT practice manager at Toronto-based Grantek Systems Integration.

Hired to help the facility manage its responses to alarms and messages from assets, Tooke and his colleagues proposed the strategy of making the HMIs available on mobile devices. The idea was for technicians to check the HMIs using iPhones and other devices that they had begun carrying as they move about the plant tending the machines assigned to them. When management approved the plan, the electronics manufacturer joined the growing ranks of companies learning to profit from the same mobile technology that its employees—and customers—are already using to manage their personal affairs.

Consumer acceptance
Because mobile devices are so widespread today, manufacturers are finding it quite easy to introduce them into their operations, according to automation vendors. “We believe the widespread consumer acceptance of these devices is making it easier and easier for companies to adopt them for manufacturing,” says Dave Emerson, director of the U.S. Development Center for Yokogawa Corp. of America in Sugar Land, Texas. “In some ways, this is similar to how Microsoft Windows operating systems became the norm in manufacturing.”

“Tablets and phones have become common through both corporate or bring-your-own-device initiatives,” adds Alec Pinkham, Genesis64 product manager for Iconics Inc., headquartered in Foxboro, Mass. “Tablets such as the Windows Surface or the Apple iPad, and phones such as Windows Phones, Androids, or iPhones support Web technologies for HMI viewing and control.”

With the device independence offered by HTML5, these devices are finding application on the latest software for HMIs and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. They can automatically connect to machinery over the wireless infrastructure already in many plants and bring up the appropriate user interfaces wherever they can receive a signal. In fact, Pinkham notes that graphics and capability of these devices typically exceed those of the devices that they are replacing.

Given these capabilities and the security available with Web services, many companies are building industrial apps for these devices. “These advances bring to manufacturing low-cost devices and software development so vendors and IT departments can implement custom apps and deploy them securely and cost efficiently,” says Emerson at Yokogawa. “We have seen more and more companies use handheld devices for remote access and for in-plant access to DCSs [distributed control systems] and asset systems.”

One example of this trend to bring consumer device levels of interaction into the industrial HMI space can be seen in the recent release of GE Intelligent Platforms’ Proficy Mobile. Designed specifically for industry use, Proficy Mobile is an app that delivers real-time access to operational information via mobile iOS and Android devices.

A key aspect of Proficy Mobile’s user interaction is found in its use of GEO-Intelligence. “This patented technology uses location, role and alarm state information in a context-aware environment to determine what industrial information needs to be displayed for the user,” says Mark Bernardo, general manager of automation software at GE Intelligent Platforms. “In social intelligence products like Facebook, situational awareness is manually determined by user inputs. Proficy Mobile's GEO-Intelligence brings the situation and the action to the user, automatically accelerating an operation's actions and resolution times.”

Bernardo explains that the actionable information accessed in Proficy Mobile is delivered through alarm indicators and notification, advanced analytics results (rules- and logic-based), health index indicators, such as OEE, and historical trending.

For mobile HMIs to deliver context awareness about operational processes and assets, Bernardo says it's essential for the software to define the key relationships between assets and users. “For example, in all operational environments a production process is made up of different equipment that works together to form a process,” he says. “Simply put, a water tower is not just the tower; it is made up of pumps and valves. Forming the key relationships between these assets will drive a complete picture with actionable information to the operator and facility manager.”

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Mobile devices are also able to communicate with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, giving manufacturers a way to differentiate their services. “Today’s ERP systems support Web services,” explains Christine Hansen, product marketing manager at Epicor Software Corp. of Irvine, Calif. “Each process within the system is a unique web service that can be accessed and executed with open methods. It can be called from a traditional form-based user interface, a mobile device, or a string of data being passed over the Internet from a business partner such as customer or supplier.”

It’s your machine calling
At the electronics manufacturer that Grantek was helping, putting HMIs on the mobile devices was simpler, cheaper and more efficient than installing the series of SCADA systems that management had considered. Although operators in a central control room could have monitored machines and coordinated the activities of technicians on the floor, the electronics manufacturer would have had to staff a control room, in addition to investing in the necessary infrastructure.

“We did a workflow study to review their existing practices and figured out the number of hours that the technicians spent triaging events every day, and the downtime that resulted from delays in corrective action being taken,” Tooke recalls. “When we calculated the total cost of ownership and determined actual user requirements, management opted for the mobile solution.”

Based on a survey of the facility’s existing networking infrastructure, Grantek installed high-power industrial hotspots on its existing Ethernet network, developing capacity for wireless and virtualizing some of the server infrastructure. To communicate with the disparate programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and HMIs on the machinery, Tooke and his colleagues specified the FactoryTalk VantagePoint Web-based reporting package and a FactoryTalk Historian from Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation.

To eliminate the guesswork endemic to the initial triage, they also relied on the StreamInsight complex-event processing engine from Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash. The engine works with VantagePoint to model events and specify the appropriate action to be taken. The notifications and event streams flow out to the technicians’ iPhones or other devices by means of the HTML 5 browser sitting on top of VantagePoint.

The software also tracks responses and permits escalating the events so they do not become lost in the shuffle when technicians are busy. If no one responds to an event in a specified time, acknowledging and clearing it with an electronic signature, then the software escalates it up the supervisory chain. “The point is to enforce responsibility to individual users around different areas,” says Tooke.

The mobile devices have a limited HMI capability that permits the technicians only to see the status of the machines. “Management didn’t want to give the technicians the ability to stop and start machines remotely,” explains Tooke. “For safety, it wanted the technicians to have a physical line of sight to the machine when stopping and starting machinery.”

Even so, the one-way communications with the HMIs has offered tremendous benefits. Not only did the workflow models remove a lot of uncertainty, but having access to the information on one’s mobile device also eliminates a lot of legwork. Consequently, the mobility reduced the triage period of running between different systems, collecting reports, and figuring out what happened. Within the first six months of implementation, downtime fell by 25 percent, and the company recovered more than 15 hours a day from no longer having to triage the system, according to Tooke.

“Now, there are 18 other sites that are looking to implement this system,” he reports. “The success at this facility has started a major KPI [key performance indicator] mapping exercise across multiple facilities. They are asking, how do we actually run our business? Are we all running it the same way? Are the actions that we take the same across all of our facilities?”

Medical device batch review
Another user turning to mobile devices to combat latency is a global manufacturer of medical devices and consumables. Management there asked Cisco Systems of San Jose to link the mobile devices used by some employees to the company’s manufacturing execution system (MES) in order to automate some troublesome workflows.

“While meeting with the company’s director of operations, we identified five processes as candidates for what we call collaboration-enabled business transformation (CEBT),” recalls Rob Filby, Cisco’s director of advanced services. The concept deploys Web services to bring together the right resources faster through mobile communications, thereby expediting the flow of work. “The resources could be persons or systems, so it could be an MES sending a notification, or collaborating in some other manner, with someone who needs to take action.”

A good example is the approval of batches, a crucial quality-control task that requires maintaining an audit trail for the Food and Drug Administration. The rigorous batch-review processes had been a bottlenecks because they were manual and slow, sometimes taking more than a week. They typically involve a series of reviewers, who used to record data and approvals in logbooks and make phone calls afterward to pass batches along to the next reviewer.

Because the hand-off mechanism was fuzzy, a batch could sit for a while at each stage. Investigations, when required, only made the situation worse. Not only were delays affecting customer satisfaction, but they also were causing inventory headaches. On occasion, batches would even sit beyond an in-process expiration date and have to be scrapped.

To avoid these costly problems, Cisco’s notification engine now sends an e-mail or a short message service (SMS) text to the appropriate reviewer’s mobile device—most likely a Blackberry—when the MES indicates that a batch ready to be reviewed. The system continues sending reminders until the reviewer acknowledges receiving the message. “If the recipient doesn’t acknowledge within a certain timeframe, the software escalates to the person’s supervisor or whoever is on the list to receive the escalation,” says Filby. After the reviewer logs an approval into the system, the batch goes to the next person in the workflow.

In some cases, the recipient was able to select the method of notification. For example, some have chosen to receive phone calls telling them that their attention is required to release a batch. The voice asks them to press 1 to confirm receiving the message, press 2 to escalate, or press 3 to take no action. Other reviewers, however, prefer to receive notifications by e-mail or an SMS text message.

Receiving alerts and notifications by mobile devices has shrunk what had been a 1-2-week review process to an average of three days. “A Six-Sigma greenbelt calculated a savings of about $100,000 for each of the 14 facilities where the initial applications would be rolled out,” says

Filby. “Right off the bat, they were looking at a $1.4 million payback for a relatively simple use case.” Applying the concept and technology to other processes, the company’s Lean-manufacturing teams were able to squeeze about $25 million worth of latency per year from the business.

Beware of allowing results like these to lead you into the pitfall of sending people too much information, warns Filby. “You can desensitize them by bombarding them with notifications and alerts,” he explains. “They will just tune out and not pay attention to their mobile devices when they go off.” To retain a sense of urgency, he recommends sending notifications only when an immediate response is necessary.

“The true measure of success of collaborative technologies and solutions is whether people are actually using them,” he concludes.

About the Author

James R. Koelsch, contributing writer | Contributing Editor

Since Jim Koelsch graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, he has spent more than 35 years reporting on various kinds of manufacturing technology. His publishing experience includes stints as a staff editor on Production Engineering (later called Automation) at Penton Publishing and as editor of Manufacturing Engineering at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. After moving to freelance writing in 1997, Jim has contributed to many other media sites, foremost among them has been Automation World, which has been benefiting from his insights since 2004.

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