Adapting mobile devices to industrial applications – part one
'...despite the obvious gains to be had, mobile devices in industrial settings are not being utilized to their fullest'
Mobile devices have great potential to increase the efficiency, productivity and satisfaction of plant personnel in industrial settings: People could work more independently; there could be fewer errors as personnel access information on their mobile devices rather than relying on other people or one’s own memory; systems could be updated on the spot; and decision makers could be contacted directly anytime.
Mobility could considerably increase the efficiency of field workers as they could access real-time information away from their work stations or control rooms, enabling greater independence. And yet, despite the obvious gains to be had, mobile devices in industrial settings are not being utilized to their fullest. ABB researchers have been identifying the challenges of using mobile devices in traditional production environments as well as identifying the needs of personnel in those settings.
Today, mobile devices are an essential part of people’s daily activities, enabling them to keep in contact through calling, texting, emailing and social media. Moreover mobile devices are more than just communication devices: They can be used as a music player, a navigation device or a gaming platform, enabling a very powerful combination of technology that can be leveraged for industrial automation.
The interaction techniques people use to control mobile devices (for example, touch, voice and gestures) have also evolved at a fast pace during recent years. For example, the introduction of well-designed touch-enabled devices changed the smartphone market completely, and the voice recognition (for example, Siri on the iPhone) and gesture recognition are finally at an acceptable level. These possibilities enable efficient interaction between the user and the mobile device even in situations where hand/eye interaction is not possible.
The challenges of introducing mobile devices in industrial environments include network capability, current work practices, IT infrastructure, environment and safety equipment.
An industrial plant may not have network infrastructure for mobile connectivity. This might be quite obvious in an underground mine, where the rock makes it very difficult to build a network that would provide good signal strength. Yet open-pit mines might not have good mobile network coverage either since they are often located in sparsely populated remote areas, which therefore have no need for commercial or proprietary mobile networks.
Current work practices
In many plants radio phones (ie, walkie-talkies) are still an important means of communication between workers. Factories are often divided into many areas that use different radio frequencies for communication to prevent information overload. In some factories workers carry both a mobile device and a radio phone, as the mobile device has not been able to replace the functionality that radio offers.
Industrial IT systems usually contain a lot of legacy software as they have been developed over several decades, and it might be difficult to integrate mobile devices to the existing process systems. For example, the mobile solutions introduced by the customers might not be specifically designed for mobile devices but rather copied from a desktop environment.
Industrial processes also require extremely secure IT systems, which external persons are not able to access. Companies are concerned about utilizing mobile devices as they could introduce more complexity and risks into their IT systems. The IT department might value system security more than providing mobile solutions that could improve efficiency. Understanding this tradeoff is crucial when designing mobile solutions for -industrial automation.
The multitude of different industrial environments also affects mobile device use. Some have impurities such as dust or dirt which can affect the touch abilities. Other environments might have large temperature variations affecting the battery function and possibly making the mobile device work slower with longer response times. Others might have humidity. Light conditions can also differ, thus impacting the color scheme and lighting in the -device to achieve the best contrast.
Industrial environments require personnel to wear protective gear. The type of gear can vary based on the safety level of the process, but in general, safety boots, vests, helmets, gloves, ear protection and safety glasses are commonly used. Often protective gear is mandatory in certain areas; for example, when moving in tunnels inside a mine or walking around a plant. Yet today’s workers spend less time in dangerous areas, as they more often stay in control rooms or other office locations. Therefore, safety equipment is becoming less of a challenge in certain areas.
Part two of this post takes a look at the specific needs for mobile devices to be used in industrial environments and application development. Stay tuned!