4 Ways Mobile Devices Have Transformed Remote Monitoring and Process Control

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Mobile devices have changed many things about the way we live and work today. They’ve changed the way we interact with each other, consume new media, purchase goods and services – they have become essential lifestyle accessories in a relatively short period of time. This is true not only for individuals, but entire industries have been impacted in a significant way.

With that in mind, here’s a look at 4 ways in which mobile devices are changing remote monitoring and process control.

Remote Device Monitoring

Mobile devices can be used as portable HMIs (Human Machine Interfaces) to monitor remote equipment in the same way that standard HMIs are used. Field operators can quickly and easily assess the current conditions of a process or piece of equipment without being tied to a workstation.

This can be particularly useful for checking the system-wide effects of repairs or configurations that are made to field equipment, rather than manually visiting each piece of equipment to take measurements or waiting until someone in the control room lets him/her know about any potential problems or abnormalities.

There may also be situations in which a problem can be diagnosed and corrected without even visiting the site. By giving field operators and technicians the ability to access real-time data from wherever they may be, it may possible to eliminate any travel time or expense, freeing the operator or technician to work on other tasks. This may also eliminate the need for the technician to call back to the control room for updated information. This means the control room operator now has more time as well.

 

Viewing Documents and Other Media

In addition to monitoring and controlling processes and equipment, mobile devices can also serve as a sort of repository for useful information, providing a handy reference for materials that would ordinarily fill several books and would be nearly impossible to carry around over the course of a work day.

New workers can reference training materials like manuals, pictures and videos. Use tablets and smartphones to access safety guidelines or troubleshooting procedures. View schematics and diagrams.  Review incident reports or outstanding work orders.

If you think of mobile devices as nothing more than a portable library of relevant media, this use alone is enough to justify the investment.

 

Filling out Forms or Checklists

Operators and technicians frequently have a need to add information to a database regarding certain tasks performed – or simply as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. Whether performing inspections, completing service orders, updating personnel files, or any number of other tasks, mobile devices can save employees a tremendous amount of time by allowing them to perform these tasks from anywhere at any time.

 

Field technicians can update the control system instantaneously from the field – without having to return to the control room to fill out a form or deliver the results to a control room operator over the phone.  It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a technician in the field, several miles from any control room, can use a single device to read a procedural document, review a checklist, enter relevant information into a form, then check to confirm that the information was entered completely and accurately – without any unnecessary travel time or phone calls.

 

Collaborating

One of the most profound applications of mobile devices is as a tool for instant collaboration. By allowing continuous access to live process data, personnel from different departments can collaborate and make decisions with up-to-date and accurate information at their fingertips.

Mobile devices can be used to document best practices by uploading pictures or videos of particular procedures and allowing these items to be reviewed by workers at other locations in other facilities. Smartphones and tablets allow personnel to access rich media at any time as a means of conveying a certain set of information to relevant parties. Use displays of real time and historical data in meetings or presentations. Mobile devices allow off-site personnel to participate in real-time activities with on-site personnel. Many possibilities are introduced by mobile technology.

Excerpted from the whitepaper “The Benefits of Data Mobility”, downloaded at www.scada.com.

3 Keys to Effective Real-Time Data Visualization

There are several important factors to consider when creating your real-time data visualization, many of which will depend on your intended application. Today, we consider at a few of the general factors that will play a role in every visualization you create. These three factors are clarity, consistency, and feedback.

Clarity

Real-Time graphics should emphasize pertinent information and use design principles that promote ease-of-use and accessibility above aesthetics. Things like size, color and brightness can be used to distinguish primary details from secondary and tertiary details. Special graphics can be created to emphasize different information under different conditions (i.e. a special set of graphics to be used when a certain alarm is triggered).

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When planning a real-time visualization scenario, it is very important to consider who will be using this visualization, and what is his/her purpose in viewing this data. This will obviously vary from one organization to the next, but when differentiating between primary, secondary, and tertiary information, it is important to not think in terms of what is important about the thing being monitored, but what is important to the person doing the monitoring.

 

Consistency

Consistent visualizations are standardized and consistently formatted. Interaction requires a minimum of keystrokes or pointer manipulations. In fact, whenever possible, all relevant information should be visible without the need to navigate to another screen. When navigation is necessary, be certain that elements of the user interface related to navigation are clearly distinguished from elements that relay pertinent information. Additionally, navigation and interaction of any type should be as easy and intuitive as possible.

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The ergonomic needs of the user are also extremely important. Poor data visibility has been cited as a primary cause of many industrial accidents where a process was being monitored or controlled through a real-time HMI (Human Machine Interface). In fact, poorly designed HMIs have been blamed for accidents that have led to millions of dollars in damaged equipment and some very unfortunate and unnecessary deaths.

 

A recent study by OSHA in Europe compiled statistics on HMI-related errors in the workplace. Interestingly, research shows that the majority of problems are caused by human error, but not entirely because of mental and physical fatigue. More often, errors are caused by poor decision-making related to the way that information is processed.

  

Feedback

An operator should be fully confident that the choices they make are having the desired effect. Screens should be designed in a way that provides information, putting relevant data in the proper context. Also, important actions that carry significant consequences should have confirmation mechanisms to ensure that they are not activated inadvertently.

 Controls will function consistently in all situations. If something is not working as it should, that fact should be immediately obvious and undeniable. Again, in a well-designed system, design principles are employed to promote clarity and simplicity, and to reduce user fatigue.

Keep it simple and straight-forward. Save the complex visual tools for historical data or real-time reporting. There is certainly a place for all of this, but that place is not where real-time data is being used to make real-time decisions.

Learn more in the free whitepaper “Real-Time Data Visualization Essentials”:

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http://scada.com/Content/Whitepapers/Real-Time%20Data%20Visualization%20Essentials.pdf

 

 

Choosing the Right Maintenance Strategy

How do you choose the right maintenance strategy for your organization? Someone from the outside looking in might think the notion of choosing a maintenance strategy is as simple as choosing between ‘repair it’ or ‘replace it’, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. Beyond the surface, though, there are a number of different considerations that can have a long-term impact on a company’s bottom line and ultimate viability. Particularly when working with numerous or expensive essential assets that are subject to the continual wear-and-tear and eventual breakdown that plagues all machines, maintenance costs can take enormous bites out of revenue.

Fortunately, numerous maintenance strategies have evolved over the years, and technology allows us to apply new techniques using new models that were previously unheard of. Let’s review some of the more popular maintenance strategies:

Reactive Maintenance
This is the simplest strategy, sometimes referred to as ‘breakdown maintenance’. The premise is simple: Use something until it can no longer be used. Then, do what needs to be to repair it and get it back in action. If it can’t be repaired, replace it. There are some benefits when compared to other strategies, such as lower initial costs and reduced staff, as well as eliminating the need to plan. Of course, these benefits are usually negated in the long term by unplanned downtime, shortened life expectancy of assets, and a complete inability to predict breakdowns and maintenance needs. The only real viable reason for employing this strategy is an inability to afford the initial costs of any other strategy.

Preventative Maintenance
Preventative maintenance is performed while an asset is still operational in order to decrease the likelihood of failure. In this strategy, maintenance is performed according to a particular time or usage schedule. For instance, regular maintenance will be performed when this particular machine reaches 5,000 hours of uptime since the last maintenance. Predictive maintenance will typically keep equipment operating with greater efficiency and extend the lifetime of the asset compared to reactive maintenance, while also preventing unnecessary downtime. It does, however, require greater planning and man-power. Preventative maintenance is not a good choice for assets like circuit boards that can fail randomly regardless of maintenance. It is also not ideal for assets that do not serve a critical function and will not cause downtime in the event of a failure.

 

Predictive Maintenance
The purpose of predictive maintenance is to predict an imminent failure and perform maintenance before it occurs. This strategy requires some specific condition monitoring and will typically have a higher upfront cost due to the need to add sensors or other hardware, and will also require skilled personnel capable of anticipating failures based on the data points being monitored. Benefits include: the ability to prevent unnecessary downtime, and minimal time spent performing maintenance as it is only done when failure is imminent. Predictive maintenance is usually not a good option for assets that do not serve a critical function, or assets that do not have a predictable failure mode.

Condition-Based Maintenance
Condition-based maintenance is similar to predictive maintenance in that it involves continually monitoring specific conditions to determine when maintenance should be performed. Typically, however, condition-based maintenance is not just performed to prevent failure, but also to ensure optimum efficiency, which can not only improve productivity but extend the life of the asset as well. Because condition monitoring equipment and expertise can be expensive, initial costs can be quite high – prohibitive in some cases. In the long term, however, condition-based maintenance may be the most cost-effective strategy for ensuring optimal productivity and extended asset lifecycles. Condition-based maintenance is usually not a good choice for non-critical assets or older assets that may be difficult to retrofit with sensors.

When choosing a maintenance strategy, think about your goals: both long-term and short-term. Determine which of your assets are critical and which are not. Calculate the cost of downtime (per minute, per hour, etc.). Take into account whatever data may already be available for you to monitor. Determine the cost and viability of adding sensors to monitor things like temperature, vibration, electric currents, subsurface defects (ultrasonic sensing), or vacuum leaks (acoustic sensing). Estimate the costs of maintenance personnel in different scenarios. Estimate the difference in costs between each of the different strategies.

You may determine that a condition-based maintenance program would provide the greatest value, but you lack the resources to implement it right away. Can you deploy a simple predictive maintenance program in the meantime, while positioning yourself to make the leap to CBM in the future?

There is not going to be any one-size-fits-all “best” strategy, and not much drains a bank account faster than over-maintaining your equipment (yes, there is such a thing). Consider your circumstances and your goals, and choose wisely. It’s one of the most important business decisions you will make.

*B-Scada software provides data analysis, task automation, and real-time visualization for enterprises looking to implement a CBM program. Learn more at www.scada.com.

3 Reasons You Should Consider Giving Your Process Operators Mobile Devices

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That’s right. It’s time to own up to the fact that the majority of us are using phones and tablets to do business everyday. We buy, sell, trade, learn, teach, and all manner of horrible and wonderful things that we have always done (no, not everyone does horrible things, but don’t act like the things you do are always so wonderful either) all with the aid of portable devices that allow us to move freely about our lives without being tethered to a desk chair.

Why, then, is it so difficult for some people to recognize that our industrial process operators and technicians – who are so often stuck behind a stationary HMI or calling from the field to speak with someone who is – would be far better equipped to do their jobs if only they were afforded the same conveniences they afford themselves in their lives outside of work.

I know there are concerns about security – about opening some digital wormhole through which all sorts of nefarious activity could be invited. There are concerns about ill-intentioned deviants having potential access to sensitive process data – which is not only proprietary, but often essential to our infrastrucure – as well there should be. But it’s not like these potential problems didn’t exist before mobile devices, and while some concerns are certainly valid, mobile devices provide a number of key benefits and opportunities that cannot be ignored:

 

  • For Remote Management of Disparate Assets
    This one seems pretty obvious, but imagine the amount of time that could be saved by not having to manually inspect field equipment or call back to the control station every time there is a simple question.
  • For Constant Access to a Portable Media Viewer
    How can you ensure that operators and techs always have access to the latest work masters, training videos, etc.? Upload or edit a document and make your changes instantly available to all relevant perties – regradless of where they are or what they’re doing.
  • For Instant access to Forms and Form Data
    Create Purchase Orders or close Work Requests from anywhere. Assign new owners or upload a picture you just snapped and attach it to a Job. The possibilities are nearly unlimited.

 

Sure, there are only three benfits listed here, but without much thought I’m sure you could think of a few more. Let me know in the comments below.

And for some additional food for for thought, check out this white paper on “The Benefits of Mobile HMIs” and tell me I’m not absolutely right about this:

Download White Paper

How To Improve Any Business Process

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If you are responsible for managing a business or organization of any type, you have undoubtedly sought out opportunities to make things run more smoothly and efficiently. It’s only natural. This means that responsible owners and managers are continually looking for opportunites to optimize their business processes.

How about some free advice?

First of all, let’s be clear about what it is we’re referring to when we use the term ‘business process’. In short, a business process is defined as a collection of linked tasks which can find their end in the delivery of a service or product to a client. It has also been defined as a set of activities and tasks that – once completed – will accomplish an organizational goal.

Any business (regardless of how poorly it may be run) employs some type of business process. Some are clearly better than others.

What we refer to as Business Process Management (BPM) can be defined as the set of techniques employed to map the flow of information and communication between various business assets and departments, identify opportunities for improvement, and establish and enforce rules to optimize the process moving forward. These techniques can (and should) be employed continually.

A BPM system can provide any company with several measurable benefits:

  • The ability to identify otherwise unknown inefficiencies
  • Reduced downtime and cost associated with wasted time and material
  • The ability to connect processes over multiple facilities and or operations
  • Automation of repeated and/or predictable tasks
  • Establishment of a program for continual improvement

These benefits are very attainable. Provided you use the right tools and follow a simple procedure, anyone can realize the improved efficiency and reduced waste that BPM systems provide. And what is the correct procedure? In very simple terms:

  1. Analyze Current Processes
    Create a business process map to paint a clear picture of the current flow of information between different business assets. Use this map to uncover inefficiencies and establish a preferred methodology.
  2. Establish and Enforce New Rules
    Define rules for how you would like information to flow, and create workflow tasks to automate tasks or send automatic notifications to people that need to be involved in enforcing the new rules.
  3. Implement, Train, Rinse and Repeat
    Once the new process is clearly defined and automated, ensure that all parties are fully trained and equipped to adhere to these new rules moving forward. You can create custom dashboards to track real-time data, create a centralized knowledge base that is shared and continually updated, and use automated real-time notifications to be sure that everyone is always aware of the current state of the process. Finally, ensure that your new process is fully repeatable and scalable to allow for continual evaluation and improvement.

Seems pretty simple, right? It can be when you combine your innate understanding of your business process with the right tools.

 

**Learn more about some of the data acquisition and visualization technology the empowers Business Process Management at http://scada.com

Information Modeling as a Tool for Collaboration

In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, let’s take a moment to examine one of the greatest and most appreciable qualities of a healthy organization: collaboration. In a world so full of information, where we are all so busy and so pressed for time, it seems collaboration has become something done more out of necessity than out of a desire for quality and efficiency.

Some of this reality may be due to the fact that there simply are no good tools for collaboration in the modern workplace. Sure, we have email and teleconferencing, web meetings and text messages – but for all of our technology, our endless need to compartmentalize and segment our business processes has left us no closer to a model of organic collaboration than we were in the past.

With relevant information stored in separate silos, decision-makers are still forced to rely on reports and statistics compiled from historical data and interpreted to support a specific agenda. There has really been no truly organic means analyzing real-time data alongside the historical data. Likewise, the available tools for integrating data from separate systems are limited in terms of their ability to create a real-time context and to display the appropriate data to decision-makers at the speed with which decisions must often be made.

While these tools may be useful for looking back and analyzing what has happened, it is another matter altogether when trying to look forward to make plans or predict outcomes.

Information Modeling

One of the ways this challenge can be overcome is by using an information model to organize and structure your organization’s data in a way that provides context and clarity in real time. Information modeling allows assets to be associated with all relevant information – regardless of where that information may reside.

For instance, a motor on your plant floor can have live data related to its RPM, temperature, throughput, or other process data – as well as a commission date, a maintenance schedule, troubleshooting documents and training videos. Properties of this motor can also include OEE (Overall Equipment Efficiency), Net Asset Value, or other performance and resource planning metrics. Some of this data may be coming from PLCs, some from databases like SQL Server, some from user input, and other data is coming from programmed calculations. In this situation, it is not important how this data is generated or where it is stored. What is important is that this data can be visualized at any time in whatever way suits your collaborative needs.

There are a number of different tools that can be used to create an information model for your organization. A few things to consider when choosing an information modeling tool:

  • Does the modeling software take into account both real-time AND historical data?
  • Does the modeling software allow you to include ALL relevant information from every source?
  • Is your modeled data logged in a relational database like SQL Server so it can be queried if additional information is needed?
  • Does your modeling software provide the tools you need to visualize your data in a useful way that supports decision-making?
Before you jump into a new software product and a new data management system, do some homework. As with everything there are pros and cons to the different products available.

The Integrated Enterprise – Are We Ready?

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There are many barriers to change in a commercial enterprise, and most of them start with a dollar sign. You are comfortable with what you’re doing. Your staff is comfortable. Sure, there may be some missed opportunities, but perfection is unrealistic. To implement enterprise-wide changes to something like your data management strategy would require cooperation across multiple departments, absorb numerous man-hours in implementation, and who can say how long it will take for all parties to get used to the new strategy and work with a level of comfort they already feel today? Is it worth it? How long will it take to recover the investment?

There are many legitimate questions to ask when considering whether or not to move toward an integrated data management strategy. How do we calculate the true cost of making such a change? A question that is very rarely asked is: What is the true cost of not making such a change?

First, let’s consider some of the reasons in favor of data integration.

Inconsistent data

One of the problems addressed by data integration is inconsistency between data on the plant floor and the business data further upstairs. Depending on the type of business, different departments typically have different goals and criteria for success. The plant floor supervisor wants to know where his products are; the executive upstairs wants to know how much his products are worth. Here is a case where we have different people querying for different bits of information about the same asset. Over time, the different goals and process definitions have led to departments using the same terms to describe different things, and different terms to describe the same things. This barrier to departmental collaboration in the manufacturing industry, for example, has led to the development of standards like ISA 95 to help facilitate the integration of manufacturing systems with business systems.

Redundant data

Another common condition is the tendency for different departments or divisions to have different ways of recording information about the same things. It is not at all unusual for large organizations to have multiple records of the same asset. For instance, if we imagine a particular production unit from the perspective of the plant floor operator, he will need to have information about where it is in the production process, its quality, the personnel involved in its production and testing, and when it will be shipping. At the same time, a manager will want to have information about how much it cost to produce this unit, how many units will be produced today, and how much we will get for it. We now have a situation where we are capturing and recording separate sets of data about the same thing.

Fewer Human Resources

This one seems obvious, but it a significant difference-maker when you analyze your bottom line. Making it easier to find needed data will allow personnel to spend more time focusing on other aspects of their jobs. It will allow for faster decisions and more immediate response to abnormal conditions. Your plant floor supervisor won’t have to make that call upstairs to find out why today’s production schedule has changed, or log in to a separate system to find out when a piece of equipment was last inspected. And the manager upstairs won’t have to call downstairs to find out why we are behind schedule today, or what happened to that shipment that was supposed to go out. Having the ability to quickly assess a situation leads to better-informed decisions made more quickly and with more immediate results.

Reduced Risk

While we are on the topic of making informed decisions more quickly, this is a good time to consider the way that decisions are currently made in many enterprises. When a decision needs to be made quickly, and the data that could support that decision is not available as quickly as the decision is needed, owners and executives are left to make decisions based on intuition. Studies have suggested that about 80% of decisions are made this way. It may work and it may not. Having the right information when and where it is needed can significantly reduce the risk involved in the decision-making process.

There are many additional benefits that can be attributed to data integration. New business opportunities can be revealed. New calculations can be used to improve efficiency and coordinate processes. Improve inventory management, energy consumption, supply chain scheduling, etc. Whether you choose to use a system of data virtualization to integrate key data from different divisions, a system of data federation to consolidate all enterprise data, or opt for a complete data integration solution that re-engineers your entire data system, the benefits are very real and yes, so is the cost. The cost, however, is a short-term loss for a long-term gain; a temporary pain for permanent growth.

So, to revisit the topic of this article: Are we ready for the integrated enterprise? The answer is irrelevant. Those who are ready will continue to prosper. Those who are not will lose the ability to compete, and will ultimately have to get ready or get out of the way.

For more information on how you can integrate and visualize your business’s data, visit: www.scada.com