Courtesy: ICONICS and RealWear Inc.
The ability to securely access an organization’s data from any mobile device is often as important as the generation, transmission, storage/archiving and analysis of that data. The recent global pandemic has amplified its necessity, as workers all over the world are counted on to perform their responsibilities as best as possible away from their usual job sites. In automation, many software and hardware technologies have been developed, even prior to recent events, that allow companies the means to remotely monitor and control business processes from anywhere, via any device, at any time.
Evolution of mobile devices
In its earliest days, process automation was considered an onsite endeavor. Operators and technicians were required to be in close proximity to the involved machinery for its operation, maintenance and repair. As time progressed, so did the allowance for a little extra distance from the actual processes, although business process supervision and control were still performed onsite, just in a nearby control room.
Fast-forward through some major breakthroughs in network connectivity and computing device processing speeds and soon modern technology started to allow for offsite monitoring and control. However, these earliest attempts were not exactly in real time, were not especially graphics-intensive and leaned more toward the monitoring side than control.
As time went on, so too did the iterations of networking speed and throughput, as well as the form factors of mobile hardware and their performance. Desktop PC-based automation software, although a leap from direct machine controls, would never be considered “mobile” by current thinking, but it was a start.
Laptop computers soon untethered employees from stationary locations, but they weren’t exactly convenient to carry around the worksite, and the corresponding network technology still needed some maturing. The internet’s ubiquity made remote monitoring and control more feasible for most businesses. Automation software developers kept pace, taking advantage of web server/mobile client structures to improve data connectivity, retrieval and transmission, as well as graphical visualization, performance and process interactivity.
The internet, along with its ability to connect to almost any data source around the world, led to the development of multiple new computing devices. These early days saw the emergence of “handheld” PCs. These devices ran the gamut between beefed up pocket organizers to pared down PCs and many manufacturers, including some longstanding technology companies, entered the fray.
Automation software companies accompanied these device manufacturers in their growing pains, determining the best mix of their control software that would be the best fit for the smaller screens. At this time, now more than two decades ago, ICONICS developed a mobile-based version of its GENESIS32 PC-based human-machine interface (HMI)/supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) specifically for mobile devices running then-currently-available Microsoft’s Windows CE and Pocket PC software.
However, the networking abilities didn’t quite match up with the hardware. Two milestones were yet to occur. The first was upgrading of cellular wireless performance; the second was the merging of handheld PCs and phones with data connectivity (“smartphones”).
This turned out to be a mobile device “sweet spot,” as smartphones were widely adopted, with businesses and automation software developers taking notice. Their handheld nature combined with fast wireless connectivity combined with capable onboard processing led to a cascade of new applications continuing today. Around the same time, ICONICS released its MobileHMI data mobility software solution, where HMI/SCADA displays can be customized for multiple smartphone specifications and the associated mobile client can perform more data-intensive tasks related to process monitoring and control.
On some of these devices, touchscreens soon replaced built-in buttons and seemed to set off yet another technology revolution in data mobility. Recognizing a good thing, hardware manufacturers experimented with the smartphone form factor to try to create a hybrid with larger laptop-like screens and tablets soon became nearly as popular as their smaller smartphone predecessors.
Fast wireless networking coupled with increasingly agile processing hardware seemed to open the floodgates for multiple mobile device types, as well as for integrated automation software. A new category of “wearables” has taken mobile computing concepts from laptops, smartphones and tablets and placed them in devices worn directly on the user (see Figure 1). Head-mounted devices include Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality device and RealWear’s HMT-1 voice-controlled fully rugged headset. To accommodate this new wave of hardware, ICONICS introduced its holographic machine interface in its GENESIS64 HMI/SCADA software to optimize displays for Microsoft HoloLens and an Android-based MobileHMI client app that works with RealWear’s HMT-1 (see Figure 2).
Although not limited solely to wearable devices, the concept of augmented reality (AR) seemed to gain popularity at the same time. Multiple facets of AR have been incorporated into automation software developers’ mobile data solutions to make data collection, transmission or analysis easier for customers. Some technologies integrated into automation-based AR solutions include quick response code (QR), global positioning system (GPS), near field communication (NFC), optical character recognition (OCR), iBeacon (Apple’s implementation of Bluetooth low-energy [BLE] wireless technology) and Barcode (optical, machine readable representation of data).
Just as phones became “smart” and computing started getting closer to the body, smart watches became popular, as well. As an additional screen, users can opt for these devices to be wirelessly tethered to their smartphones (and that phone’s data plan), or some can be used as a standalone device (that can use its own cellular connectivity when not connected via Wi-Fi). ICONICS has added smartwatch integration into its KPIWorX self-service dashboard technology for custom visualization and KPIs on popular watch platforms, allowing users to connect to real-time information provided via OPC UA, BACnet, Modbus and other popular communication technology standards, as well as to business intelligence data from databases and other analytics tools (see Figure 3).
Although not traditionally considered a “mobile” data solution, voice machine assistants do qualify under the definition of “hands-free” user interactivity. Advanced voice recognition technology paired with fast data network transfer has been integrated into multiple device types. Automation software developers have integrated such hands-free, natural language interaction to help users boost productivity and improve operational efficiency. The aim is to make it simple and intuitive to issue voice commands for activities such as monitoring the status of systems and processes, controlling equipment and devices and analyzing key performance indicators (KPIs). One example of such technology is ICONICS’ voice machine interface (VMI) available within its GENESIS64 HMI/SCADA solution offering compatibility with voice assistants including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana.
On the horizon
Where do mobile data solutions go from here? With history as a guide, it’s safe to say data connectivity will continue to improve. Form factors will change. Processing will get speedier, both on the server and client sides. What customers may see are more specialized adaptations of mobile technologies. For example, ICONICS has recently released a product called CFSWorX, a connected field worker notification solution that helps streamline the efficiency of field service organizations through intelligent scheduling and reliable notifications.
CFSWorX leverages ICONICS AlertWorX technology to send notifications to technicians. Alerts can be delivered via e-mail, SMS or through mobile app via push notification. When the technician receives an alert, he or she can reply to the message or use the mobile app to either accept responsibility, reject the alert or report as “busy” and pass the alert to the next person. Once onsite, technicians can use a remote expert feature, which can stream live video and audio via a user’s mobile device (including AR-enabled wearables) for remote knowledge sharing and to improve issue resolution (see Figure 4).
In years to come, there will certainly be more ways to define data mobility as well as the software and hardware that makes it possible. Automation software developers will continue to build upon past technology breakthroughs and invent new combinations to help businesses get the most use from that data.
This article appears in the Applied Automation supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering.