Beam Up Some Information, Scotty

Not too long ago the idea of a machine dialing a maintenance technician's cell phone to call for help seemed far fetched. Then came the great success of Palm spawning the "palm top" market. Research In Motion's Blackberry e-mail device was next in the commercial hit parade. It is only natural that engineers using these devices for part of their business life would ponder how to exploit them fo...

By Gary A. Mintchell, CONTROL ENGINEERING May 1, 2002


Human-machine interface

Display devices

Information technology

Operator interface

Sidebars: GE Fanuc PalmView permits real-time, mobile access information Siemens Energy & Automation unveils wireless web pad Handheld database keeps turbines running ONLINE

Not too long ago the idea of a machine dialing a maintenance technician’s cell phone to call for help seemed far fetched.

Then came the great success of Palm spawning the “palm top” market. Research In Motion’s Blackberry e-mail device was next in the commercial hit parade. It is only natural that engineers using these devices for part of their business life would ponder how to exploit them for automation as well. Now, a number of wireless technologies that combined with software advances, will fuel even better ways to distribute manufacturing information.

It’s easy to picture an engineer or technician walking around a plant with more devices clipped to a belt than an electrician’s tool belt: pager, cell phone, Blackberry, PocketPC, and walkie-talkie. It seems like a scene from a science-fiction movie. Thankfully, technology convergence in the electronics industry is enabling multiple uses for one device. But the reality is that a controller can be programmed to send a message in the necessary format to those who need to know the information by cable or through the air.

Two years ago, Russ Agrusa, president of Iconics (Foxborough, Mass.), demonstrated a version of his company’s Genesis SCADA/HMI (supervisory control and data acquisition/human-machine interface) package on a pocket Microsoft Windows CE device monitoring a process in real time. Now Iconics’ MobileHMI product enables connection of Palm, PocketPC, cell phones, and other handheld devices to real-time plant information.

Around the same time, Opto 22 (Temecula, Calif.) vp, Bob Sheffres, and director of technical marketing, Benson Hougland, conducted a “dueling telephones” demonstration of WAP (wireless application protocol) control of the company’s online demo using web-enabled cell phones.

These demonstrations initially just revealed that the technology existed to accomplish remote monitoring and control along with sample applications. Two years later, technologies are improving and more companies are supporting them. The two product exclusives with this article show how mobile access to plant information will be a common occurrence.

The two products, MOBIC (Mobile Industrial Communicator) from Siemens Energy & Automation (Alpharetta, Ga.) and PalmView from GE Fanuc Automation (Charlottesville, Va.), also reveal two of the form factors likely to predominate over the next few years. MOBIC is a tablet-sized device with the advantages of a larger screen giving a more desktop-like user experience. PalmView, on the other hand, will easily slip into a shirt or jacket pocket while still offering color graphic interface.

Wireless HMI use to grow

A recent market research study by Venture Development Corp. (Natick, Mass.) concludes that there will be a healthy growth in wireless technology in industrial monitoring and control applications. “The North American Market for Wireless Monitoring & Control in Discrete and Process Manufacturing Applications” forecasts a compound annual growth rate of 87% from 2001 through 2006 for off-site operator interface terminals; and 53% for on-site operator interface terminals. Contributing to this growth are wider wireless communications in general and expansion of wired networking in factories.

While large percentage increases often mean that the item measured starts from a small base, this research does indicate that interest in wireless operator interface is growing. If engineers are going to deploy wireless HMI devices, what model architecture should be considered at the design stage? Craig Resnick, director of research, hybrid industries, at ARC Advisory Group (Dedham, Mass.), suggests considering these devices as an extension of thin-client computing.

Classical thin-client computing describes a model where all application software and data reside on a server, while a thin client has only enough software to boot up and communicate with the server. This model offers reduced licensing fees for owners and ability to control version upgrades, security, and data integrity in just one location rather than on many computers. Users see screens ported from the server and can run applications from HMI/SCADA packages to word processors and spreadsheets with minimal hardware on the client side.

Another model uses web technologies in a client/server model. A device or software application like an HMI package can serve web pages in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) or eXtensible Markup Language (XML) that can be read with any client device with a web browser. This model allows potentially greater access to information, depending on security and access limitations.

Choose the right thin client

In his paper, “How to Choose the Best Thin-Client HMI Technique,” Mr. Resnick identifies four types of thin-client implementations as traditional, local web, wireless web, and remote web. Some characteristics include:

Traditional targeted users are operators, having direct interaction with the process, with full graphic capabilities;

Local web is for casual or remote users for viewing process information with partial graphic capability;

Wireless web users are mobile and use it for remote viewing process information or mobile data gathering with partial graphics; and

Remote web is for casual, remote users for viewing point information with primarily text screens with some ActiveX graphics.

Keith Kersten, product marketing specialist for MobileView products at Rockwell Automation (Milwaukee, Wis.), identifies places where customers gain most benefit from wireless HMI. He notes, “Wireless HMI is best for applications where personnel are required to cover large areas to perform operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting tasks. Typical applications include conveyor systems, large production lines, transfer lines, and process industries. Lack of wires also helps in applications where users are required to climb or crawl around a machine or line to perform tasks.”

Moving from a hardware to a software point of view, Randy Selesky, GE Fanuc Automation marketing manager, points out that wireless HMI can be a component of a collaborative manufacturing strategy.

“A manufacturer wants to analyze all the components of an assembly, for example,” notes Mr. Selesky, “and capture information about the quality of each component and the assembly. This information is archived in a database. It all must be put in a relevant context for all plant personnel concerned, plus product designers, and suppliers. Key performance indicators (KPIs) must be determined and made available to all who need that information. A manager or engineer could get snippets of information in real time of relevant KPIs with a handheld PocketPC like PalmView.”

Avoid pitfalls, do design

The best advice when implementing a wireless HMI strategy is to not skip the design phase. Like anything else an engineer wants to put in the plant, there are potential problem areas that could scuttle the best ideas in that tricky implementation phase. Not only must the engineer consider how the device will be used and what infrastructure will be required, there are other challenges as well.

Chantal Polsenetti, ARC Advisory Group vp of strategic consulting, says that whenever she talks to users about wireless technologies and mentions implementation problems, heads always nod—harsh experiences bring knowledge.

Bill King, Siemens E&A product manager for wireless technologies, says that his group often performs site analyses for customers, and those customers are often amazed at the amount radio signals existing within a plant. Cell phones, walkie-talkies, RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and readers, even IEEE 802.11(b) wireless Ethernet that a department had installed unbeknownst to the engineers have been found in a typical plant.

ARC’s Sal Spada, director of research, discrete industries, finds, “The unlicensed frequency spectrum in the 2.4 GHz band utilized by Bluetooth and 802.11b-based wireless LANs is getting more overcrowded. A compelling new lighting technology operates in this same frequency, but rendered inoperable an existing wireless LAN at an Air Force maintenance bay.”

Tom Dowd, principal product manager at Intermec (Everett, Wa.), recommends evaluating all the requirements within an application to determine whether text-based thin client or graphical Microsoft Windows CE device is the better fit. Further evaluation will show which wireless technology is the best fit.

Type of wireless matters

Leading contenders include Bluetooth, IEEE 802.11a, and 802.11b. He suggests Bluetooth for short-range reading in a personal area network. He warns users to be careful with Bluetooth, since it can cause problems with other wireless devices in the area; 802.11b and “a” can coexist, but an engineer should evaluate when “a” or “b” makes sense. “We have discovered in real life situations on site surveys, where “a” does not cover the same area as “b.” I think of a like FM radio, while “b” is like AM. FM gives great quality, but loses signal strength when you get behind building or in a valley. AM gives better range but less quality. Similarly, “a” is better for short distances with requirements to move lots of information. If you have a large facility with small packets of information, which is typical of manufacturing or warehousing, then “b” is much better choice.”

Several product implementations reveal a glimpse of future directions. At the November 2001 Comdex, Microsoft’s (Redmond, Wa.) chief software architect, Bill Gates, demonstrated the concept of a Tablet PC. Building on initial success of Pocket PC built on Windows CE (see, for example, the picture of GE Fanuc’s PalmView), this larger handheld will be built on a version of Windows XP. Design specs call for longer battery life than a notebook with better display than a palm-sized device. Siemens’ MOBIC and Rockwell’s MobileView pictured in this article are examples of the size, although the Tablet PC platform is in the future.

InHand Electronics (Rockville, Md.) designs and manufactures platforms for OEMs who build their own final handheld products. It has just introduced its Elf2 wireless platform with GPS (global positioning system) and Bluetooth capability. Bluetooth could enable the finished device to be a mobile data acquisition device. With GPS, for instance, the device could record location, which would be useful for someone who must cover greater distances, say a pipeline application.

At the recent Plant Engineering Show in Chicago, part of National Manufacturing Week, Akula Software (Yarmouth, Mass.), exhibited a handheld maintenance management solution featuring a wireless Pocket PC implementation.

Products are here, with more coming. Most plants have the required infrastructure to begin implementing. Check it out and see whether your plant will benefit from wireless HMI.

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GE Fanuc PalmView permits real-time, mobile access information

GE Fanuc Automation (Charlottesville, Va.) has introduced Cimplicity PalmView, a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) based on the Compaq iPAQ that contains Cimplicity collaborative production management software and a wireless Ethernet card.

Using thin-client technology, Cimplicity PalmView allows operators and managers to view real-time graphical automation and production data from anywhere in a plant without additional screen configuration. Bidirectional data capabilities of PalmView permit users to interact with production systems to read and enter process information.

“Cimplicity PalmView is ideal for managers, quality technicians, and mobile maintenance personnel. Now, they have the power to view manufacturing data with the freedom to be located wherever they are most effective,” says Kevin Roach, vp of the global solutions business for GE Fanuc. “These users have real-time access to the information they need to drive improved productivity and product quality.”

A Cimplicity PalmView license can be installed on an existing HMI server operating on Microsoft Windows 2000 and Windows NT systems and supporting a system of greater than 75 I/O points. A combined total of up to 50 Cimplicity PalmView, TabletView, or WebView users can be supported from a single server.

Cimplicity software monitors and controls processes ranging from a single machine to global collaborative production management. The software combines an intuitive graphical interface with functions like manufacturing execution systems, supply-chain execution, quality management, enterprise asset management, and supervisory control and data acquisition to give original equipment manufacturers, integrators, and end-users greater productivity, increased quality, and lower costs, the company says. PalmView CimView graphic screens and is designed for viewing data and changing setpoints.

Siemens Energy & Automation unveils wireless web pad

MOBIC, a wireless, robust, handheld web pad delivering wireless access to the World Wide Web or an intranet.

Unlike palm-sized devices, the MOBIC’s (Mobile Industrial Communicator) 8.4-in., SVGA 800 x 600 pixel display eliminates the need to scroll for data. Designed to withstand a six-foot drop, MOBIC is IP65 rated (splash and dust-proof) also tolerates high vibrations, making it suitable for forklift mounting applications.

The unit communicates on a wireless LAN network (IEEE 802.11b) to access a central server. It can operate for eight hours per battery charge.

The Microsoft Windows CE-based, mobile web pad can be used as a terminal client and operates and monitors all applications running on a Windows 2000 terminal server, for instance industrial SCADA applications, such as the Simatic WinCC process visualization system, maintenance management, or quality assurance system.

According to Bill King, Siemens product manager for wireless technologies, customers like the screen size best. The product is small enough to carry easily with a screen large enough to display a desktop-like screen.

“With Windows Terminal Services client built-in, users can run any application permitted on the host Terminal Services server, including our HMI software,” he adds. “Also, since MOBIC is built on Windows CE, customers can add their own applications. One customer needed a way to accomplish lighting control by a person who needed mobility. MOBIC’s wireless communications and the customer’s application talking directly to a Simatic S7 PLC was the answer.”

Microsoft’s CE.Net is in the future of this wireless, handheld device. Mr. King states this will give full Internet Explorer capability enabling even more powerful uses.

Handheld database keeps turbines running

Most people take electricity for granted. However, people in the energy business know that generating electricity is challenging process involving extremely expensive equipment.

The core of an electric plant is its turbines, which must be closely monitored and thoroughly maintained to safely provide reliable and efficient energy. To keep the units running optimally, technicians need access to considerable data specific to each turbine, including calibration specifications, drawings, part assemblies, alarm points, and so on.

Steven Epperheimer, an instrument & controls technician for Chugach Electric Association (Anchorage, Alas.), and other Chugach technicians now use handhelds to quickly reference turbine data in their daily activities. Using Microsoft Windows CE-based HP Jornada 450 handheld computers and Visual CE, a database development tool from Syware (Cambridge, Mass.), Mr. Epperheimer and his colleagues have developed an application that provides full access to turbine data on a mobile platform.

“My HP Jornada has been transformed from what one associate called a ‘toy’ to a valuable reference device,” says Mr. Epperheimer. “Having this database allows me to easily look up information when we have a turbine malfunction, or if management wants to know a specific parameter of a turbine or generator.”

Data on hand helps prevent disaster

Previously, all turbine data were maintained in the power station’s instrument shop, some on a desktop PC in Microsoft Access, the rest in hard copy in instrument summary sheets. Mr. Epperheimer estimates that having the information readily available is saving each technician using the handheld application at least 30 minutes per day.

The Visual CE application on the Jornada comprises multiple turbine databases mapped to corresponding Microsoft Access databases running on a desktop PC in the instrument shop. The “tag number,” a unique number stamped on each turbine sensor and other key components, is used to reference drawings, calibrations, parts lists, trip points, specifications, and technical notes. Lists of tag numbers and their related data are supplied by the turbine manufacturer, usually in Microsoft Excel or Access format. This information is used to build the Access database on the desktop, and then synchronized to the Visual CE application on the handheld.

In normal mode, all data are read-only to protect from being accidentally changed. An Edit button displays the form in edit mode, which has the same layout as normal mode, but with a few color changes to indicate that the user can now enter or modify data. Once users add or change data as needed, they tap the Save button to return to the original read-only form. Data collected in edit mode also can be readily synchronized to the desktop database.

Mr. Epperheimer investigated several other handheld database programs, and found Visual CE to be the easiest to use. “I don’t feel limited in setting up forms, or editing them if I visualize a better method of arranging fields. It didn’t even take much effort or reading to get up to speed.”


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For related reading, see CE, Oct. ’01, cover story, “Why Not Wireless?”