Augmented reality enhances plant floor view, productivity
A provider of process automation services and solutions develops applications that employ panels, automated equipment, drives, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human machine interfaces (HMIs), and database, Web, network, and custom components. The company delivers turnkey processes for unique customer specifications, helps design and implement customized control systems, and provides expert consulting and engineering support services for existing systems.
“In any industry that relies on automation, efficiency is the name of the game; otherwise, humans would still be building cars or filling medicine bottles,” said Bob Meads, founder and CEO of iQuest. “At iQuest, we understand the essential need for streamlined operations and strive to help our customers operate at the peak of productivity.”
Customers can and do calculate the value of efficiency in dollars saved, and one of the most detrimental effects to the bottom line is production downtime. Most iQuest customers calculate plant or production line downtime at $1,000 to $40,000 per minute, so keeping machines working—or quickly repairing them when they fail—is of the utmost importance. Downtime represents significant revenue loss.
In most facilities, production and maintenance professionals must maintain and repair automated machinery, relying on disparate resources to monitor and diagnose machinery errors, including operational data, schematics, technical resources, and URLs associated with the equipment process. Gathering and interpreting information from these various resources often resulted in extended downtime before diagnosis and repair. An Apple iOS application provides an augmented reality view of the plant floor, “recognizing” equipment or process area in the user’s vicinity using QR Codes (quick response, data matrix codes that a mobile device can scan) and displays relevant process data, document links, and resources on an Apple iPad or Apple iPhone display. (The iOS platform was chosen for its highly intuitive user interfaces, deep market penetration, superior security standards, and ability to support a mobile, and often geographically divided, technical workforce.) By instantly presenting all available diagnostic information in a highly digestible format in a centralized location, the software application equips plant professionals to make faster and more accurate decisions.
Furthermore, most plant floors consist of hundreds—if not thousands—of different machines, often from a variety of vendors, each speaking a separate language, or software protocol. An application was needed to instantly communicate with any machine in any plant, regardless of the supported protocol. Doing this required integration of an immense collection of device and client drivers and broad support of the OPC standard. [OPC serves as the translator among disparate languages.]
The software to support the interface with customer machinery included a “comprehensive library of supported native and open communication standards,” said Meads. Engineered to support the OPC standard and over 150 protocols, the integrated software can interact with virtually any piece of machinery within any industrial plant environment.
“In the industrial automation industry, there is no standard language for communications, like the widely known HTTP standard that you see on the Internet,” said Meads. “So you can imagine how difficult it could be to get one application to connect to and communicate with disparate devices in an environment as diverse and complex as an industrial plant floor.”
Through its ability to instantly communicate with any piece of machinery, the software allows field technicians, production maintenance, repair professionals, and others to gather, view, and access all data associated with a machine by simply scanning the device’s QR code. Users can also pull down a menu to retrieve any data, anywhere they have a connection to the plant network. The integrated package can provide live machine process data, turning any plant floor into an efficient, data-rich environment. This anytime, anywhere access to any machine’s live, historical, or resource data builds an encompassing and concise augmented reality view of the plant floor.
Collaborative support with offsite technicians or experts is available using a holistic data display and recording feature. This allows on-site line technicians to capture live video of issues on Apple iPad or iPhone display. Technicians can overlay that video (including audio) with live data from the machine’s HMI or PLC, schematics, parts lists, and user annotations directly on the screen. The resulting mp4 video can then be e-mailed to offsite support for quick analysis and problem resolution, thus allowing remote personnel to support repair as if they were on-site.
Such software streamlines upkeep and repair by eliminating the need to locate technical manuals. With a QR scan, it provides technicians with supporting documentation for any piece of plant machinery. Among the industry’s largest automotive producers and one of the largest health care product developers use the application in a production environment. Initial results regarding time-saving and increased efficiency are significant, and overall feedback has been positive.
The integrated software allows communication with any industrial machine, to instantly consolidate all resources and data necessary to significantly streamline upkeep and repairs, and to reduce revenue loss resulting from downtime.
– Tony Paine is president and CEO of Kepware. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, and Plant Engineering, email@example.com.
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