Capital investments are scarce, employment is down and manufacturing is barely ticking over in much of the world, but purveyors of mobile computing hardware, software and wireless infrastructure are still seeing steady — in some cases, aggressive — growth. Word is out about increases in productivity, effective knowledge management and positive culture change in companies that hand out handhelds. Now the barriers to implementation are under siege.
“Life is more competitive,” says Joe Granda, executive vice president, marketing, Syclo (www.syclo.com), which is expanding its mobile software and systems integration workforce. “Organizations have gone to a lot of effort to streamline activities — six sigma, asset management, supply chain — and they’ve done a pretty good job of improving productivity and processes. So what’s the next step? Mobile.”
Mobile computing lets companies leverage office system improvements in the field. You can reduce cycle times to reduce labor costs, improve customer satisfaction and increase product quality; get information into the hands of people and back into the system; and handle regulatory compliance with documentation for the EPA, FDA and Sarbanes-Oxley.
Better information management is breaking down barriers between production and maintenance. “As companies put in more maintenance management systems because costs are high and equipment is breaking down, they find that they now know what the backlog is, but they’re not catching up,” says David Dollar, product manager for IntelaTrac at Wonderware (www.wonderware.com). Operators can collect condition data to help them operate within the design envelope and keep the process or machine tuned. “They can extend the time between maintenance and notify maintenance earlier if a problem starts to occur, so you replace a bearing instead of a shaft and bearing,” Dollar says. Along with extending intervals based on more proactive operation, you can empower operators with correct procedures and focused advice, and lead them through minor troubleshooting.
Mobile devices also are being used to capture uninstrumented process data. Some 40% of equipment isn’t instrumented or has only local gauges. Operators often open or close valves manually, setting positions with verbal communications, and the records are poor. Mobile devices can bring those values into the process historian, allowing the operator to feed information into multiple systems of record.
For example, EPA requires inspections of flanges and valves for fugitive emissions. “You attach RFID tags — not bar codes that can be copied — at the locations,” Dollar says. “You have to be within two inches to scan them, then answer questions to confirm the inspection. Reports are e-mailed to the EPA. The EPA visits less often because the inspections are rigorous and documented, and the EPA accepts them.”
The same wireless infrastructure can be shared among mobile computing, security, building management and control systems. It can reduce capital expenditures and improve reliability when adding measurements for monitoring and controlling equipment, energy and emissions.
“The business case for mobile workers is compelling,” says Paul Brooks, business development, networks, Rockwell Automation (www.ra.rockwell.com). But as shown in Table 1, research shows that manufacturers also see some challenges.
|Key Benefits*||Key Challenges*|
|1. Empower employees to be more productive||1. Security concerns/risks|
|2. Reduce labor costs||2. Cost of hardware, total cost of ownership|
|3. Work order accuracy, asset tracking accuracy||3. Cost of software, integration, service and support|
|4. Improved compliance documentation||4. Integrating mobile applications with infrastructure|
|5. Impact on revenue generation||5. Hardware quality|
* Manufacturers’ responses to “What are your organization’s key benefits and challenges with regard to the deployment of mobile and wireless technologies?” (Motorola)
Engineer your Ethernet
Most industrial facilities are settling on wireless Ethernet (Wi-Fi) as the primary plant-floor mobility backbone, with radio, cellular, GPS, Bluetooth, etc. used where needed, as needed. Infrastructure costs are coming down as architectures are standardized, application engineers and installers become more familiar with industrial requirements, and competition heats up among industrial and commercial suppliers.
“Ethernet — 802.11 — is being accepted as the network,” says Marty Jansons, networking consultant, industry communications group, Siemens Industry (www.usa.siemens.com/industry). “People are giving wireless a go, trying it in an area that’s unreachable by wires or using it to upgrade a fieldbus system. We see 802.11a, b, g and n.”
In a plant, wireless applications as diverse as security video and real-time crane control can be integrated on one wireless infrastructure by supporting different radios that don’t interfere. “802.11g on 2.4 GHz offers 3 channels, 802.11n offers 3 on 2.4 GHz and 22 on 5 GHz,” Brooks says. “Sharing time is fine for PCs and emission controls, but not for controlling a heater or a crane.”
Figure 1. For safety and security reasons, the mobile computing, control and business networks should be separated and firewalled. (Apprion)
For safety and security reasons, the mobile computing, control and business networks should be separated and firewalled (Figure 1), asserts Steve Lambright, vice president, marketing and customer services, Apprion (www.apprion.com).
“Now your wireless infrastructure can support many applications — maintenance, process control, business systems, condition monitoring, security video, emergency notification, voice — so you can share up-front costs,” Lambright says. “You don’t have to justify it on just one application.”
That justification begins by defining what you want the network to do. “Wireless is a shared medium,” says Jansons. “You can have eight people fighting for access, or you can separate them into channels to guarantee access. On 802.11g, you can segregate traffic and have separate names, encryption and passwords. What do you want, what do you need, what are your security requirements?”