By most accounts, we are now firmly in the era of the Internet of Things and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and it's starting to impact industrial manufacturing by changing how manufacturers want to interact with their processes. Tablets, in particular, are migrating into the manufacturing space in a big way, so you should be aware of how to implement this technology successfully. Realize first that it's not an easy effort and should be approached with care just like any other project in your facility. If done correctly, though, you will find there are many benefits of incorporating this new technology into your site.
First, you must decide what you want to accomplish by incorporating tablets. Operators often request to see graphics, receive alarm notifications, or have access to standard operating procedures. Maintenance wants to have access to prints and technical documents. Engineers like having access to P&IDs, electrical prints, and configuration information. Management wants to see production status and other dashboard type information to ensure the plant is running smoothly. By providing the right information to the right user at the right time, manufacturers can reduce downtime, improve safety, increase order accuracy and achieve many other positive impacts. All of these are possible with tablets, but all require some amount of cost and infrastructure to accomplish. So start by deciding what you want to accomplish, and the investment level you are willing to make.
Once those goals are identified, infrastructure is always required. Here are the five key questions to ask to determine your mobile infrastructure requirements:
Question 1: Who provides the tablets? With BYOD becoming so popular, some facilities are allowing their users to bring their own device, which saves on cost. From an IT perspective, this is a security nightmare as any of these devices could be carrying a virus or an open door to allow hackers into the system. Bottom line: The tablets must be managed. Many facilities see tablets as a much less expensive alternative to computers and provide them to users at no cost. Companies like Motorola and Advantech have begun to offer industrial tablets, and there are a wide variety of rugged cases available.
Question 2: Will the tablet perform in your environment? Watch out for classified areas (Class 1, Div.1) and make sure your users know where they can and can’t take them. And remember, tablets will get lost in the oddest of places—between pipes, on tanks, and in the pawn shop, so make sure you have spares available or another means to accomplish the task.
Question 3: What will your wireless network comprise? Tablets do not have a wired network interface, so wireless networking is a must. Many facilities already have wireless to some extent, but special consideration must be given to how the tablets connect. For example, most plants don’t want an operator to control a process from a break room, so a wireless access point located close to the normal operator station is a good idea. Management, however, needs access wherever they are in the facility. Take a look back at what you are trying to accomplish and let that guide what kind of wireless network to implement and where.
Question 4: What levels of security are needed? Don’t neglect the security aspect. For example, you don’t want to connect your controls network to a wireless network with internet access just to get tablet connectivity. Keep SSIDs hidden, choose your security and encryption level carefully, and consider using things like a MAC ID authentication table to ensure IT feels the system is secure. Stay up to date with ICS-Cert recommendations and monitor your network to ensure it is only being used the way it is intended. This is not a once and done task. You must monitor and maintain this network just as you would any other.
Question 5: How will you connect? Now it's time to determine what software will be used to connect your tablets to your systems. For example, for operator interfaces, many providers offer a web-based version for viewing HMI software. If you use VMWare for virtualization, you can use VMWare’s View offering. Automation Control Products (ACP), a popular software provider for thin clients, has its own app for connectivity. There is also the option to take advantage of Microsoft’s Terminal Services through a remote desktop session. Many users have found that using this technology helps limit access to only the content intended and also helps facilitate the BYOD movement. You can have a terminal server set up with multiple sessions for various users and ensure nothing leaves the sight that shouldn’t—keeping both IT and management happy.