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Are HMI and Mobile Devices On the Menu for Your Plant?

The time is right to make plant data portable. Soon, I predict, we’ll wonder how we ever managed our plants without it.

You’re out to dinner on a Friday night when you spot your plant supervisor a few tables away.  

He’s busily manipulating his smartphone, despite his wife’s impatient glare. Then, with a look of satisfaction, he puts down his phone and rejoins the conversation.

You go to greet him and learn that he just increased the output on your plant’s bottle fillers, averting the need for a Saturday shift.

A likely scenario in your plant?

Consumer mobile devices are proliferating in the commercial sector. But in the industrial sector, their use has been limited to remote diagnostics and maintenance visualization in SCADA solutions — so far.

Why? For one reason, machine operators and maintenance staff have always been more physically tethered to their machines and traditional HMIs. Until now, accuracy and uptime in process manufacturing have required a 24/7 line-of-sight — and physical presence.

And, until recently, the cost of implementing full process-control functionality on a mobile device has been prohibitive.

Understandably, security concerns also have had a chilling effect on the pursuit of mobile plant interfaces. The risk of damaging a $500,000 machine — or the loss of production capabilities — is too high a price for convenient information access.

But development costs are coming down for mobile device/PLC interfaces, paving the way for access to discrete plant operations via smartphone, tablet or other mobile devices. Hardened devices are popping up, too — bringing users access without the security concerns.

The next generation of mobile interfaces for process control probably won’t be exact replications of today’s HMIs. Instead, we can expect simpler, scaled-back interfaces: discrete notifications like production line alerts and alarms, output reports by plant and the like.

What about security? Ultimately, mobile security is an extension of your plant’s plant network security. So you’ll be good to go — if you’ve built sound security protocols into your Ethernet network, if you’re using the right switches, and if you’ve designed your network using designated manufacturing zones (DMZs) and an industrial firewall between zones.

Data convergence is all about amping up productivity and gaining control over quality and output. That happens when we bring the right information to the right people at the right time — and the right place.

The time is right to make plant data portable. Soon, I predict, we’ll wonder how we ever managed our plants without it.

Mike Pantoleano, Rockwell Automation for Industrial IP Advantage