Mobility Extends the Reach of Alarms

Oct. 31, 2014
Strategies for handling alarms and alerts are changing rapidly as connectivity and mobility are creating new challenges and opportunities. More managers are gaining more freedom because they can get alerts on smartphones and tablets, but this wireless connectivity is spotlighting the need for enhanced security.

The use of portable devices is expanding rapidly, giving managers information whenever and wherever they are. That’s helping drive the expansion of wireless links in industrial environments.

“About half of our wireless plant business are deploying mobile workers, which includes alarms on tablets,” says Neil Peterson, product marketing director at Emerson Process Management (Emerson Process Management, http://www2.emersonprocess.com/en-US/Pages/Home.aspx). “Today, customers have access to hazardous-rated tablets, laptops and handhelds. These products require wireless infrastructure.”

While their use is expanding, smartphones and tablets aren’t expected to displace existing human machine interfaces (HMIs). Use of these handhelds will usually be fairly limited.

“Such devices are not intended to replace the console operator’s traditional setup, but can provide complementary operational monitoring,” says Hector Perez, high-performance HMI manager at PAS Inc. “They are aimed at remote engineers, staff and plant managers.”

When wireless technologies are deployed, security always becomes more of an issue. That’s especially true when remote managers who receive alerts have the capability to make changes to resolve issues.

“With tablets, security becomes very important,” says Bill Hollifield, principal consultant for PAS. “It is possible to actually enable process control and change via a portable device. Security is highly significant if that capability is desired.”

The expansion of wireless links isn’t the only security challenge facing managers. The openness that comes with the shift to Ethernet makes industrial networks more vulnerable to attack by hackers, viruses and corporate spies.

That’s forcing companies to expand the scope of their alerts. Anti-virus programs and other protective systems must warn network managers when web-based attacks are detected.

“Security is monitored by the corporate cybersecurity group in most cases and by a dedicated cybersecurity group within the automation side in others,” says Richard Powell, manager of cybersecurity solutions at PAS. “Cyber threats are increasing dramatically for the automation assets which are not covered by today’s cyber protections. Companies need to deploy tools which will monitor and protect the proprietary side, such as PLCs and distributed computing systems, in addition to servers, HMIs and network devices.”

Often, cyber attacks can be handled with software used by the company’s IT group. However, a growing number of tools focus on industrial environments, ensuring that critical production operations aren’t slowed by denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, intrusions or other malware-related assaults.

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