When a piece of machinery in your manufacturing facility breaks, you might not have the best plan in place for fixing it without wasting huge amounts of time and money.

Bob Meads, founder and CEO of iQuest, addressed this common manufacturing problem in our conversation about his company’s collaboration with Kepware, as well as advanced approaches to viewing the plant floor and challenges to implementing automated solutions.

iQuest is an automation-solution provider and integrator, which means they build solutions for manufacturing plants and process areas. When the company began developing iQagent, a mobile app designed to improve efficiency in monitoring, they selected Kepware’s KEPServerEX, because it offers the ability to communicate with various pieces of equipment on the back end.

Bridget Bergin (BB): You say that iQagent offers an “augmented reality” view of the plant floor; what does this look like?

Bob Meads (BM): Augmented reality means that you have a real-world view enhanced with computer-generated components. A familiar example is the yellow first down line that appears on your TV when you’re watching a football game.

In a manufacturing plant, there is so much data that you can’t see. To find out information on a piece of equipment, you would need to go into a control room that could be far away.

iQagent is a mobile app that displays relevant information based on where you are in the plant. The app displays a live video feed of the process and recognizes equipment in the field of view by QR codes. The video feed is then augmented with information relevant to the equipment. The result is a holistic view of your process on your mobile device, which can then be used by workers and technicians to perform maintenance or communicate with remote staff about problems.

BB: How do these features improve plant efficiency?

BM: We identified what we think are the two biggest problems that every plant experiences every day:

  • Resource availability: Every piece of equipment on the line has data associated with it. You have to go to different places to get the data, which often requires you to leave the equipment you’re supposed to be working on. If we can eliminate the need to leave the equipment to get this information, the efficiency automatically goes up.
  • Better communication: Production downtime is the single costliest problem in plants. The technicians who actually analyze and repair equipment problems are often not onsite. The operators present are then tasked with describing the issue over the phone or email to the person with the skills to analyze the issue. We provide the user the ability to show the problem remotely using an augmented snapshot or video. This often alleviates the need for the technician to travel onsite and, even if they do, they come prepared with much more information about the problem.

BB: What are some challenges that manufacturers face in implementing your solution?

BM: Certain technologies need to be in place. For example, if a plant doesn’t have an automated process or a wireless network, they won’t have a need for iQagent. A manufacturer also must be comfortable using tablets on the plant floor. Documentation is another major obstacle—we have encountered manufacturers who still have paper documentation, and we would need to work with these companies to transition their processes of electronic documentation before implementing iQagent.

Lastly, whenever you look at allowing mobile devices into a network, you encounter the issue of security. Many manufacturers are very concerned with security, so it’s essential to have a secure wireless network. One way we address security is by disallowing any interaction with the process.

BB: What are some major trends you’ve observed in automation?

BM: Bring your own device, or BYOD, is a huge trend I’ve started seeing in the past few years. Mobility initiatives, or when the corporate level investigates what mobile solutions can improve efficiency, are also big.