Build your own industrial Tricorder from handheld devices

Almost anything you can do with a conventional industrial PC can be done with a handheld device. This includes HMI, SCADA, data logging, vibration analysis, equipment diagnostics and, of course, CMMS functions. All you need is a handheld with enough memory to support all the software, and HMI/SCADA software that will run on the diskless PDA and gather all the necessary real-time information.

By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor

Imagine being able to walk around the plant on an inspection route, spot a problem with equipment, and solve it right there on the spot. For example, let’s say your experienced ear detects a slight change in the familiar sound of a motor-driven pump. Using your handheld PDA, smart phone, Blackberry or portable PC, you scan the bar code to identify the pump, check to see if the CMMS has detected any problems from condition monitors, call up the pump’s recent service history, and see what the last tech said in the work order. Then, switch over to the handheld’s HMI/SCADA software, bring up a trend plot from the plant’s control system and check all the critical operating values, such as current draw, vibration data, rpm, flow, etc. Next, plug that data into a diagnostic package and discover that a bearing is going bad, a motor is failing or there’s a clog building up downstream.

Download the appropriate repair procedures for such a pending failure, and make up a work order for a maintenance tech to fix the machine before it breaks. You do all this in about 15 minutes, without leaving the pump, all from the keyboard on your handheld.

Sound far-fetched? Maybe a little. But everything described above is being done today with handhelds. It’s just not all being done in the same device -- not yet, anyway.

According to Ernie Roland, president of InduSoft (www.indusoft.com), almost anything you can do with a conventional industrial PC can be done with a handheld device. This includes HMI, SCADA, data logging, vibration analysis, equipment diagnostics and, of course, CMMS functions. All you need is a handheld with enough memory to support all the software, and HMI/SCADA software that will run on the diskless PDA and gather all the necessary real-time information.

With as much as 2 GB, “Today’s handheld devices have enough memory and processor speed to run HMI/SCADA software,” says Roland. For example, Indusoft’s Web Studio HMI/SCADA software takes up 3 MB of memory, MRO’s Maximo remote software requires 48 MB, and the Foundation fieldbus communicator software from Emerson Process Management takes up 32 MB. Add in some condition monitoring and device diagnostic software from various vendors, and you have the equivalent of Mr. Spock’s Tricorder. Prices are reasonable, too. A handheld to run all this costs about $500, Web Studio HMI/SCADA software costs $376, and you can probably get device diagnostic software from vendors for free.

Next, you have to configure the HMI/SCADA software to the machine controller’s I/O network or the control system’s architecture: “Configuring a PDA is the same as configuring a PC,” Roland explains. “Most HMI/SCADA software can be configured to any well-known PLC or control system.” Most people are not aware of the powerful tools available for PDAs, he adds. “Today, it is not necessary to be a C++ programmer or an expert in .Net to create an interface for a PDA. Software tools in the market provide communication drivers for all the standard protocols and provide the same development interfaces for PC applications.”

Once the handheld is loaded with CMMS, HMI/SCADA, fieldbus communicator, HART configurator, device diagnostics and vibration analysis software, then it acts the same as a conventional PC-based system. It can run the same programs created for the machine’s conventional HMI, and retrieve the data directly from the controls and historian databases. If some of the software is too big, and needs to run on a PC – such as vibration analysis software -- the handheld can send data via wireless to the PC, ask for it to be processed, and get the answer back. That technique is called a “Web Client,” which means the bloatware software is running in a PC, but the handheld can see all the display screens.

When you have a handheld loaded with such software, you will be able to do everything described above with a single device. If you can’t build it yourself, wait a few months. As you read this, smart vendors are building the industrial maintenance equivalent of the Tricorder. Soon you’ll be able to write the requirements into an RFQ, and watch vendors scramble to get to your door.

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