Mobile devices on the plant floor can typically make operations people more effective, whether they’re running or repairing equipment—or looking at production status and line info. Setting up mobile devices, however, to give operators the best user experience in managing controls is a little different than setting up a 19-in. or larger fixed terminal on the plant floor. In many cases, when a food processor doesn’t have the engineering staff to make it happen, it’s time to call upon the services of a system integrator.

Process and Data Automation (P&DA), a member of the KRONES Group, is a full-service, CSIA Certified industrial control systems integration firm providing engineering for controls automation, data collection, and reporting in industrial manufacturing environments throughout North America. I spoke with Eric Williams, digitalization group manager, to find out how PD&A works with manufacturers to set up not only large-screen, fixed terminals on the plant floor, but how they translate data from the big screen to the small screen to still be useful. Obviously, if you could shrink your large display to a phone, you’d need a microscope to see what’s on the phone’s screen. However, effective small-screen HMI design takes a lot of careful planning and conversation with all stakeholders before getting started.

FE: What products/services do you provide to facilitate the use of mobile devices on the plant floor?

Eric Williams: We have integrated mobile design and hardware into SCADA, OEE, Quality, and turnkey line monitoring solutions. We also deploy and support high speed packaging lines with Krones’ Share2Act platform.

FE: For this question and the ones following, I assume that company-owned mobile devices are being used to access company equipment and data.

Granted that some machine controls still have their own fixed industrial user interface (UI) stations, what applications (e.g., controls, machine status, KPIs, machine teardown with photos/videos, etc.) are ideal for the use of smartphones, notebooks and tablets on the plant floor? What are your customers deploying most frequently?

Williams: Correct, clients provide mobile hardware when it is required for operations. Most core control remains within structured machine human machine interfaces (HMIs) and SCADA systems. On the industrial side, we have many clients utilizing mobile add-ons to monitor remote equipment, either inside of a facility or of a larger enterprise. These can see all the key elements in areas like tank farms, wastewater treatment systems, and similar items which are away from facilities’ main processing equipment. 

Many of the systems we deploy are purpose-built for mobile. Quality systems that span many people and departments are a great example of this. Our Share2Act solutions for packaging line solutions also fall into this example as they have both multiple machines and a significant physical footprint, all coupled with a low operator count. Operators in these environments interact with not only the line controls but also the warehouse systems for raw ingredients and finished goods. They are also intertwined with maintenance functions, and our clients use them every day to access manuals, videos, and real time connection to backend support from machine manufacturers. 

FE: Today, probably most websites (including Food Engineering) automatically resize themselves for the device being used to view them, pushing some things off the page in favor of the more important section/page. Can this technology be used effectively to display the key machine/line status information regardless of the device connecting with the data? 

Williams: Absolutely, yes. The development environments for these products are purpose built to support this. 

FE: From a programming standpoint, are separate screens (UIs) and apps developed for each device viewing them, e.g., laptop, notebook, wearable, tablet, smartphone? 

Williams: Yes, but this isn’t difficult from a development standpoint. It does take some front-end planning so that the screens remain useful but aren’t cluttered. We find this design process to be a good exercise in that it engages the client a bit more and they feel a better sense of ownership since they’ve had good input.

FE: Would this latter method make more sense, because you need to guarantee an operator sees specific job-related data on a screen—and that it is not buried several levels down? 

Williams: Yes. Of course, the work isn’t simply a resize effort; you must plan. Screens tend to become less graphic intense as they shrink. Furthermore, you must plan to remove controls for things that you don’t want operated via mobile and this helps drive the operators to the equipment and HMI local for items that they should have eyes on before engaging for actual control.

Eric-Williams-PDA_250.jpgEric Williams, Process and Data Automation digitalization group manager

FE: Assuming that most wireless devices today can have both cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity, how does that affect the UI programming of the system—or is wireless mode transparent to what is being displayed on the screen? What are important wireless considerations in whether cellular or Wi-Fi or both should be deployed? For example: performance, number of screens displayed, coverage into remote areas of the plant, etc.? What do you advise?

Williams: We typically see wireless utilized inside of a facility or main buildings of a facility. Cellular is utilized for more remote operations like municipalities, tank farms, and remote monitoring of facilities utilizing VPN appliances.

FE: How do you design UIs to be most effective, especially in an alarm condition on a noisy plant floor where the operator may not hear the alarm over the device’s speaker? Does that mean the operator wears phones or something else? How is that safe in a plant environment? What are the options in making sure operators receive pertinent messages—whether machine or human generated?

Williams: Some applications rely upon push notifications to indicate to the operator via their phone or smartwatch that an action is required on the line. Careful consideration must be given to the criticality of items that are accepted or expected to be addressed in this manner. True, mission critical alarm situations generally are not addressed with this type of tool. The expectations and attention to safety threats over these devices need to be engrained within the organization to prevent accidents due to distraction.

For systems that we have installed which do not utilized push notification, we provide a notification icon with the number of items to attend to. This is generally reserved for non-critical or non-hazardous communication.

FE: How can AR (augmented reality), virtual reality and/or AI be employed with wireless devices to improve an operator’s or technician’s skillset on the plant floor? What are the good applications for these new technologies? What technologies have you already successfully deployed?

Williams: For years, Krones has supported their clients with augmented reality solutions that link field technicians to high-level backend support. This allows direct connection to a great deal of data in terms of manuals, videos, etc., in addition to higher echelons of maintenance. With the launch of the Shopfloor Guidance application within the Share2Act IIOT platform, direct field personnel from both the customers and tech support can now access a great deal of that same information along with all the equipment’s performance information to drive to technical solutions in the event of failures. The entire Share2Act platform is designed for mobile and is optimized for tablet and phone use.

FE: Although I didn’t mention this before, how do you ensure that the same data can be shown on Apple, Windows, Linux and Android wireless devices in the same way? Do food processors need to worry about what wireless device is being used, or is this built into the system to adhere to any OS that a UI is being displayed on?

Williams: We utilize only software platforms that allow our mobile applications to operate on modern browsers. Therefore, the operating system is not important, so long as it supports a modern browser. To date, every client we work with who embraces tablets, phones, or other tech on the floor provides that hardware so we know in advance what will connect and we take measures to ensure its suitability with what is and is not on the machine as software.

FE: Any other key issues to be concerned about?

Williams: Any in-plant deployment of mobile-based technology requires robust network systems to ensure uptime. These networks must be adaptable to accept new devices as technology evolves and this is different than hard-and-true, set-it-and-forget-it SCADA networks of the past. When a client wants to open their system up to an outward facing solution, for example remote access outside the plant, then additional considerations arise with respect to security threats, food safety requirements, and more. We are very careful to function in an advisory role when clients ask for outside connection as it requires work on both our part and theirs to ensure proper delineation between what should happen within site, its equipment and personnel versus what can happen remotely. In nearly every case where even rudimentary control is provided remotely, we design the solution so that multi-step confirmation is utilized to actually run any equipment.