Mobile Devices in Automation

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Tethered-hardware thin-clients and mobile equivalents - tablets, smartphones and other portable devices, deliver vastly improved productivity and yield drastically reduced total cost of ownership.

This article was published by:
March 2013

The use of WiFi-connected tablets, smartphones and mobile devices is starting to generate explosive growth in industrial automation and process control. Integration of mobile technology is changing the landscape rapidly because it reduces costs, improves operating efficiency, boosts productivity and increases throughput using existing people and resources.

Any process that involves collecting data with paper documents and centralized data entry is a candidate for mobile solutions. Changing from a paper process to inputs and displays on mobile devices dramatically boosts worker productivity. Errors are vastly reduced and the reporting process is sped up. In the already connected world of manufacturing, this introduces more functionality.

Expanding the amount and types of data that sales or field support people and managers can access remotely avoids maintaining duplicate manual systems and provides better, faster customer support. From purchasing to fulfillment to the shop floor, field-measurement and reporting, mobile devices are being integrated to yield substantial productivity gains.

My recommendation: Instead of simply attempting to replicate traditional software on mobile devices, focus on finding ways to optimize mobile-device-based systems. To a large extent, this involves identifying the data that is actionable and critical for users in the factory or the field by ensuring that content is available on mobile devices.

Mobile devices as thin clients

For decades, the personal computer (PC) and "industrial" variations have been used almost everywhere in the factory and plant environment. But, with all the failure-prone components like fans and hard drives, plus all the time it takes to keep the operating system up-to-date, the PC-centric period is winding down.

The shift has begun to replace traditional PC hardware with "thin client" products - diskless, fan-less, with no hard drives, no storage space, no programs to upload or update, sometimes not even a resident operating system.

Tethered-hardware thin-clients and mobile equivalents - tablets, smartphones and other portable devices, deliver vastly improved productivity and yield drastically reduced total cost of ownership. To manage widely distributed thin-clients requires a software platform that allows applications to be easily distributed to the right person, at the right location, at the right time. That is what ThinManager does. This groundbreaking and rapidly evolving software is offered by Automation Control Products, based in Alpharetta, GA.

Using ThinManager, plant operators and management personnel can see what any system is doing, not just near the machine or equipment, or from the control room, but from any location. Information and displays can be accessed from anywhere with tethered thin-clients and mobile tablets or smart-phones. Internet access allows management of systems from locations many miles or time zones away.

Security issues

Securely deploying mobile devices is a major challenge, especially as integration with business applications means more sensitive information is accessible if a device is lost or stolen.

Mobile Device Management (MDM) software gives organizations the ability to track smartphones and tablets, identify users on the network and deploy applications from a secure foundation. With sophisticated malware becoming more common in industrial and control environments, MDM is an essential tool to ensure mobile devices can be used without putting the system at significant risk.

Stuxnet and similar industrial-system security problems have made everyone aware that multiple access points through non-secure interfaces like USB ports, SD card slots and CD/DVD drives can be serious problems. Typical thin clients have no drives, though some tethered products might have USB slots. By default, ThinManager disables all USB ports on the thin clients it manages. Only authorized users, viewable via attached IP-cameras, can access sensitive applications. Indeed, this is the ultimate defense against unauthorized system access.

Tablets and smartphones don't have outside access points except through secure WiFi. However, their very portability introduces serious security issues: They may be lost, stolen or "borrowed," allowing unauthorized access to sensitive data. The "freebie" is the camera, which can be used to view the user, with image recognition to authorize or disable the device.

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