A Case for Mobile HMIs in Automation

  • October 29, 2014
  • B-Scada Inc.
  • Feature

By Rich Hunzinger, B-Scada

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 we 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. In truth, mobile devices can provide a number of advantages that are difficult to overlook. Most people can easily envision scenarios in which having remote access to live process information on a mobile device could save time or prevent accidents. Consider some examples of the pains that mobile HMIs could 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 of 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 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. Another benefit is that these mobile devices themselves can also be monitored as a simple means of keeping track of technicians in the field or company vehicles. If your organization employs contractors, providing them with a company tablet or smartphone would not only give them better tools to do their job, but could also be a means of tracking their location and/or progress, ensuring a certain level of real-time accountability. Mobile devices have already gained popularity as a tool for managers and executives using BI applications as a means to track KPI or to support off-site decision-making. Now, HMI software has evolved to a point that it is quite easy to design dashboards or control panels for mobile devices. 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 should 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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