A Case for Mobile Devices in Automation

One of the fastest-growing and most widespread trends in the HMI and SCADA software realms is that of mobility. Namely, how can we – or should we – take advantage of mobile devices in automated work environments?

There are those who have concerns about security. Are mobile devices secure enough to allow them to access sensitive process-related data? And if so, how much access should they have? Read/Write access? Read only? Should they be limited to a certain subset of data? And, if so, how can our control user access to ensure that users only access what they are authorized to see? Will these devices open holes in the network that allow malicious applications access to sensitive controls?

While some of the security concerns are certainly valid, the benefits of mobile devices are impossible to overlook, and the truth is that many of the security concerns are not inherent in the devices themselves, but in the way that the HMI/SCADA system and network infrastructure are configured.

Consider some of the pains that mobile devices can help eliminate:

  • A field operator must call the control room to ask for the reading on certain piece of equipment (i.e. valve, switch) he/she is looking at or manipulating.
  • A field operator must call the control room to confirm whether a certain piece equipment has truly been shut down for maintenance work because it sounds like it is still running.
  • A field technician dangerously works on a live line because the control room has shut down the wrong line!
  • A field operator must call the control room to describe equipment schematics because he/she has no access to an HMI or drawings on the floor at that moment.
  • A field operator must call the control room to pull out the manual for a piece of equipment because the panel on the one he/she is looking at is different from the others he/she is used to.
  • A field operator must describe over the radio what he/she is seeing – lights on a panel, leaks, etc.
  • An operator must take a check-list out to the field, return to the control room and enter the results into a form or spreadsheet, or into the control HMI.
  • Constant calling back and forth between field and control room when testing or calibrating a measurement or control element.

A mobile device can be used to remotely monitor processes and equipment, view drawings or manuals, review an online checklist, enter information into a form, even adding value as a tool for remote collaboration.

When properly configured and combined with role-based user access control, a wide array of new possibilities are revealed. The time saved in the field can now be used to perform other tasks or implement programs for optimization. A safer, more productive workforce is a very real benefit, and that’s not something that business owners or managers will take lightly.

Are mobile devices a part of your business model? If not, it may be time to review your processes and make room for the future.

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