Is plant maintenance and monitoring smarter with mobile apps?

Mobile computing brings new apps to the plant floor.

By Sheila Kennedy, contributing editor

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In brief

  • Industrial-grade mobile apps and rugged handheld units are making it possible to manage and control the maintenance function from remote locations.
  • Mobile phones are replacing Internet connections on the plant floor.
  • Designs and plant policies might limit the extent to which wireless technology can be implemented in the plant.

Surging interest in industrial mobility can be credited to the confluence of trendy device choices, lower-cost connectivity and tech-savvy “Millennials” — children of Baby Boomers, also known as Generation Y — now entering the workforce. Applications (apps) to foster operations and maintenance efficiency abound for both rugged and consumer-grade wireless technologies, but getting the highest return on your mobility investment requires matching the strategy to your particular environment.

Early adopters lead the way

Rugged devices were the first to hit the plant floor. Soft dB, a manufacturer of acoustical equipment, chose DAP Technologies’ M8910 rugged tablet computer for acoustic and vibration measurement. “It allows us to be an innovator by integrating signal technology into a modern tablet PC,” says André L'Espérance, president of Soft dB (www.softdb.com) in Quebec City, Quebec. “Once it’s fully deployed, we expect that hundreds of users will be using the device.”

Figure 3. The FLIR Viewer App lets you send thermal images directly to your iPad and email it right away.
Figure 1. The FLIR Viewer App lets you send thermal images directly to your iPad and email it right away.

Coatings and specialty products manufacturer PPG Industries uses Motorola’s MC9000 rugged handheld mobile computers for mobile human-machine interface (HMI) and asset management, and private commercial radios from Motorola to improve plant communications and security. “Although we’re just in the infancy of enabling the mobile operator and technician in our facility, the potential benefits in efficiency, safety and environment are huge,” says Rob Brooks, process control supervisor for PPG Industries (www.ppg.com) in Pittsburgh.

The new wave in mobility is smart apps. One wholesale craft beer brewery is pilot testing Aurora Mobile Apps from Aurora Industrial Automation to access its Rockwell Automation FactoryTalk visualization system from any location. With an Apple iPad or iPhone, users can monitor and compare the processes, such as the status of the brewer’s mash filtration system, in real time.

Vendor offerings are many and varied

Figure 4. With an iPhone, you can carry every FLIR IR picture ever taken anywhere you go.
Figure 2. With an iPhone, you can carry every FLIR IR picture ever taken anywhere you go.

The Flir Viewer App, released earlier this year, lets you send thermal images and data from a Flir E-Series or T-Series camera directly to your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch without connecting cables or swapping SD cards. “With this app, when you snap a picture of a problem with your Flir camera, you can call it up on your iPhone via Wi-Fi from the floor and email it to any number of recipients right away,” says Ed Kochanek, director of sales, eastern region, for Flir Systems (www.flir.com). “The app (Figure 1) is generating great excitement with our customers. With an iPhone or iPad, it’s easier to store, scroll through, analyze and share pictures. It allows you to carry every picture ever taken anywhere you go (Figure 2).”

The ProSoft i-View, launched in 2010, is a mobile app for Apple devices that enables remote process monitoring and control with real-time process data. “If you need to know immediately when there’s a fault in a line valve, or a motor seizes, or a drive stops working, the i-View can detect it,” says Chris Hines, training manager for ProSoft Technology (www.prosoft-technology.com). “We recognized the inevitability of melding between consumer and industrial technologies via mobile apps. So, we began investigating opportunities to leverage these tools to complement our solutions and our customers’ applications.”

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