Factory automation in the palm of your hand

Smartphone ownership is on the rise. These tiny devices have more computing power than NASA’s machines which guided man to the moon in 1969, so it’s no surprise that manufacturers are exploring the potential uses for viewing HMI/SCADA data on the move. Ian Millington, managing director of adi Automation, a division of the adi Group of engineering Companies, explains more.

According to research by Ofcom, we are officially a smartphone society, with the laptop having been overtaken by the mobile as the most popular device for browsing the internet. In fact, 66% of all UK adults now own a smartphone, and over half of UK households own a tablet.

This isn’t exactly a shock, as these devices provide both flexibility and productivity in our working lives, and with the multitude of variations out there to suit every purpose and budget, the move to handheld is a no brainer. Naturally, it’s far more complex to introduce new processes on an industrial scale, as opposed to, say, office accounting software. However, that’s not to say we should be dismissing the introduction of smartphone automation, as its ability to boost operational efficiency will pay dividends.

With other countries already leading the way in terms of progressing towards totally connected digital factories, it’s about time for the UK to catch up and reap the benefits.

For example, there are apps on the market which allow plant operators to collaborate and share knowledge; view live production diagnostics; interact with machine alarms; and troubleshoot devices. Using an industrial automation app removes the need for a central plant room, giving engineers the flexibility to walk around the plant floor with the information they need right in front of them.

Such apps can also allow engineers to view trend data when they are directly in front of a device – such as a drive – and identify where faults are occurring. The app’s knowledge base can then be used as a reference point to ensure the issue is resolved quickly, safely and effectively. Some apps can also allow the engineer to take a picture of the device in question and send it to a colleague who is a specialist in that area.

Typically, this would involve bouncing between devices and data sources, running back and forth between information portals, and hunting down colleagues for advice, so it is easy to see how industrial automation apps can really boost productivity.

Certain apps also operate ‘location-based security’ – this means it connects to plant floor local networks, and therefore cannot be accessed outside of the factory environment, thereby ensuring that only verified users can access sensitive data. For use in harsh industrial environments, such as chemical and pharmaceuticals, purchasing ATEX-approved tablets is an attractive option cost-wise in comparison to centralised plant equipment.

Implementing smartphone technology can also have wider benefits for the industry’s image, helping the UK to attract new engineering talent. For millennials, many of whom are more at home navigating an iPad than pen and paper, the use of high-tech devices makes working in a factory environment much more appealing. To combat the widely-accepted skills shortage, the industry must work hard to challenge its image problem –helping to create the kind of modern environment that ambitious, tech-savvy millennials desire to work in.

So, for manufacturers looking to not only aid in closing the infamous skills shortage, but to also boost their productivity and reduce downtime, now is as good a time as ever to start seriously considering the benefits of industrial automation apps.