Assessing user needs for mobile app development for industrial environments

Part two of the "adapting mobile devices to industrial applications" series

ABB has identified specific needs for mobile devices to be used in industrial environments. Understanding these needs is essential when designing mobile solutions to create more efficient operators and field workers.

Through its research, ABB has discovered that rugged mobile devices are not wanted in locations where spark-free equipment is not a requirement (as, for example, in oil or gas platforms). Users prefer to replace broken or lost devices with new ones rather than pay extra for rugged options. Users want well-designed backup solutions that will keep the device content safe in case of an accident. The backup solutions would automatically save the content of the mobile device to a secure server to prevent information from getting lost in case of an accident. And, of course, security must be very high since any break-in to the system could be disastrous. Yet the level of security should not affect the availability of the system: There is no use for mobile solutions if the information cannot be accessed anytime, anywhere.

Another important criteria is that the mobile device should fit into a pocket; otherwise, the device might stay on the work desk and not be carried along during assignments at the plant. The ability to type with a full keyboard is not considered an issue since the mobile device is not meant to replace a desktop computer – it is just a tool for when a field worker is on the move.

ABB has installed Extended Automation System 800xA workstations in plants for workers to access the process automation system remotely. These stations have a keyboard and a big screen and can be used when the capabilities of a mobile device are not enough. Learning to cope with certain limitations of smartphones, for example, the need to charge the phone daily is also not considered an issue since the phone could be charged between one’s shifts together with other equipment that also needs to be charged eg, lamps. Thus, special devices with extended battery durability might not be necessary.

Current mobile devices that have been specifically designed for industrial environments do not include the latest available interaction technologies such as multitasking or multitouch, nor are they equipped with sensors for measuring the orientation (gyro, accelerometer), proximity of other objects, and light conditions. However, the latest smartphones in consumer markets offer these capabilities and a superior user experience. Workers in industrial settings have the same expectations of mobile devices when used as a work tool.

The main advantage of a mobile device in an industrial setting is the real-time access to all information independent of the workers’ location. The information includes the process data as well as manuals, blueprints, and descriptions. Up-to-date information is vital for accessing process information. Today, this is accomplished by communicating via radio or phone with the operator in the control room.

For a mobile solution to work, it is important that everyone is included in mobile communication. All personnel should have a mobile device in order to be reachable. Otherwise, other communication methods are needed, which in turn add complexity to the communication.

In an ideal case, people could contact anyone at the plant according to, for example, their availability, responsibility area or expertise without needing to know the actual phone number. The communication method (for example, phone or video call, text messages, or chatting) could also be chosen according to the work task and availability of participants. This could minimize the operators being overloaded as they could answer some of the questions asynchronously. Mobile devices would also enable private communication, which is not possible with radio phones.

At times personnel in industrial settings use their work or even private mobile devices to take pictures or videos of issues encountered for documentation or to consult with their colleagues. However, they do not have any support for this task from the system or tools provided by their employer. Therefore, industrial mobile devices need to make it possible to collect and share information about the status of the industrial process more directly.

Application development

The rapid development of Web and mobile applications is very different from the traditional release cycle normally used for industrial systems. Mobile applications have adopted a release cycle of weeks and months, adding new functionality and features as they are updated. The mobile app Angry Birds, for example, has constantly been adding more levels and new characters into the gameplay since it was released in late 2009. Similarly the Facebook application for iOS has also constantly been adding functionality over time instead of releasing a version that does every requested feature from day one.

Such a method for software development (ie, adding functionality in small but frequent installments) is necessary in the mobile domain as the hardware and software is shifting so rapidly. That is, the top-of-the-line hardware today will be considered old and replaced by something else tomorrow. These quick software release cycles are something that the industrial sector will have to adapt to by releasing updates as frequently as any other apps for the mobile devices instead of releasing “super versions” that include every requested feature but with the price of a very long development phase.

Furthermore, with a shift toward quick development cycles it is possible to develop and release software for the industry that solves the most critical use cases, where mobile solutions will make a huge impact. Continuous updates to the industry applications will then improve and add requested features. Also, “rapid prototyping” and mobile app development on mobile devices is inexpensive today, which makes the smartphone platforms attractive for industrial domains as well.

In the final part of this series we look at what lies ahead in the field of human-machine interfaces and mobile device usage in industrial automation

Related articles:

Adapting mobile devices to industrial applications – part one



Categories and Tags
About the author

Andreas Moglestue

I'm Chief Editor of the ABB Review magazine.
Comment on this article