Finding common ground between industrial automation and mobile technology

Mobile technologies are challenging traditional data handling practices as they move into the industrial arena.

By Benson Hougland June 13, 2019

Mobility, within the context of industrial automation, is more than a buzzword and consists of more than one technology. Compared to traditional methods of implementing control and data networking, mobile technologies require multiple hardware and software enhancements. End users already comfortable with mobile connectivity in other aspects of their lives are increasingly demanding mobile interactions with automation systems. The mobile devices and applications now advancing into the industrial space are changing how data is acquired, viewed, stored, analyzed and acted upon.

Treating mobile technology as an afterthought or add-on to existing industrial automation systems is a short-sighted approach because some industrial control products already possess the computing and communication features necessary to deliver a mobile experience. It is possible to realize integrated mobility with any data acquisition (DAQ) application in a reliable and secure manner very quickly.

With newer automation products that have built-in mobile capabilities, users can enhance traditional industrial automation methods with suitable mobile options. The result is a simplified implementation for the end user.

Built for browsing

Industrial hardware and software systems located in factories and manufacturing plants are often considered operations technology (OT), while office networking and mobile communications systems are usually referred to as information technology (IT). Merging industrial and mobile technologies requires integrating OT and IT services. This integration is successful when end users can use their mobile devices to engage with OT equipment without having to think about the technologies in between.

A common nuisance for OT and IT is the requirement to install specific software to perform basic hardware configuration. While specialized software still has a role in more advanced configuration and programming, it is more convenient for end users when they can do some or all of their work using familiar software such as a web browser.

Commercial and industrial devices use a web browser to expose configuration options and information.

A web browser also gives users the ability to do at least some system setup, monitoring and troubleshooting with a phone, tablet or other mobile device over encrypted and authenticated connections. In many cases, software doesn’t have to be downloaded, nor is internet or PC access required. This is a prime example of how mobile technologies can remove hurdles when accessing industrial information. 

Improving data flow

Traditional industrial automation architectures can deliver runtime mobile data, but it takes several complex intermediate steps (Figure 1). Establishing this process is rigorous, difficult to manage and a security minefield.

Data points originate at various sensors, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or other smart devices. This data then had to be arranged and scaled according to the source device’s programming methods and protocols. It then had to be organized and transmitted using polled request/response methods through multiple layers of input/output (I/O) servers, PCs, gateways and other intermediate components — until it reached a cloud-based or on-premises data server supporting mobile connections. Off-site connectivity usually entailed firewall management and heavy IT involvement.

However, a newer class of industrial automation controllers improves the situation by embedding IT capabilities into OT platforms to emphasize communication. These edge programmable industrial controller (EPIC) devices maintain OT roots with I/O and industrial control features (Figure 2). They also integrate IT elements such as advanced programming languages, web-based management and mobile-optimized protocols as native functionality.

Such devices simplify data transmission by connecting to any wired or wireless smart device in the field, and by initiating outbound communications to cloud services accessed by mobile devices (Figure 1). With on-board I/O and support for industrial protocols, an industrial edge controller can obtain data from any sort of field equipment or smart device, including PLCs and programmable automation controllers (PACs).

In addition, using the ISO standard messaging queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) and the open-source Sparkplug protocols, an industrial edge controller can execute report-by-exception publish/subscribe (pub/sub) methods to transmit data to a central broker. Traffic is minimized and server loads are reduced because brokers process data only as requested. In addition, security is improved and most firewall issues are avoided because pub/sub data communications use outbound, device-originating communication methods.

Compared with traditional methods of providing mobile capabilities, data structures are changed because only requested data is processed. Extraneous data is excluded and programmer efforts to map and track data tables are unnecessary. Developers pick and choose the data they need transmitted, simplifying the system and improving performance.

Outside looking in

Although the merging of industrial and mobile technologies provides welcome connectivity and data flow options for industrial applications, adding mobile devices can also raise concerns about who can see and change industrial controller data. For older systems, where a hardwired operator interface terminal (OIT) was connected to a PLC with a serial cable, it was clear the human-machine interface (HMI) experience was local and insulated from the rest of the world. Security demands more attention for a mobile device on the site’s Wi-Fi network, or connecting over the internet or cell data networks. Some of the effort previously used to getting things to work must now be directed to security.

The first step is making sure all data communications on untrusted networks (for example, networks with direct internet access) are encrypted and authenticated. Industrial edge controllers typically have these important security requirements built in.

The next step is to control individuals’ physical and data point access based on their actual need for data. For instance, a company may choose to restrict operators to a display-only HMI application on company-issued tablets within the local plant network. Engineers or supervisors for the same system may only be allowed to view certain diagnostic or production information via the internet or cell data network, permitting them to remotely assess operating conditions, but without the ability to make changes.

When data goes off-site, it’s important to set rules regarding its use so employees understand company expectations and requirements. Using data off-site prompts questions about whether valuable or proprietary information is leaving the plant on mobile devices in an uncontrolled manner, and if that information can be captured on those devices.

Or, even worse, can those remote devices be used to initiate unauthorized changes within the plant? Many mobile HMI applications, whether browser-based or otherwise, would not specifically store data on a local device. However, what if a user could display a read-only recipe and make a screen capture of it? That might constitute unacceptable data access.

These are valid concerns, and the user or the company must decide the appropriate levels of access for individuals and ensure all device and data configurations are secure.

For situations requiring greater restrictions on mobile technology, company-issued devices may be considered instead of letting employees adopt a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) approach. Dedicated company-approved devices can be more specifically managed and secured, even to the extent of triggering lost devices to be remotely wiped.

Perhaps the most important step to ensuring secure remote access is starting with the right data collection and distribution device.

All mobile, all the time

A natural development resulting from easily implemented mobile industrial hardware and software is more applications may become exclusively mobile. As long as Wi-Fi or cell connectivity is consistently available, end users may prefer to shed the tethers of traditional industrial implementations in favor of the convenience mobile offers.

Beyond its runtime accessibility, mobile used for industrial applications saves up-front engineering and design time. Local industrial systems can be installed “headless” without local operator-facing HMIs because the HMI experience will be delivered over the plant’s networking infrastructure to authorized mobile users.

Keeping a finger on the industrial pulse

Another positive consequence of improved mobile industrial technologies involves a shift from simply making equipment work to targeting preventive or predictive maintenance via deeper analytics.

Machine and process automation applications have tried to optimize processes and present operators with the information they needed and it’s far easier to configure machinery to automatically update diagnostic and functional metrics. This information can be used to anticipate upcoming maintenance requirements, reduce downtime, troubleshoot active issues and discover trending problems.

Progressive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will build the right data points into their equipment and gather results from a machine, a site, or even multiple sites. Using pub/sub methods to communicate data will reduce security issues at OEM customer sites and provide more efficient data collection. Data can be used to provide additional services to customers and improve machine design.

The ability to cast a wider data-gathering net provides more information for supporting detailed offline data analytics. End users looking to reduce energy consumption and maintenance costs, and to improve efficiency, will find these analytics invaluable. 

Mobile meets industrial

While it makes some sense to discuss industrial OT and mobile IT as separate entities, overlap is increasing. These distinctions will continue to fade as all types of industrial controls adopt more native and IT-like mobile functionality.

From an operator’s standpoint, the mobile industrial experience should remain the same or be better than before while providing the added advantage of taking their viewing device with them where needed. Operators can monitor equipment located remotely or in hazardous areas while avoiding travel time and remaining safe. Maintenance personnel may find even more benefits because they can access detailed data when and where they need it. Engineers and designers will find improved options for their work and easier development, though they must establish comprehensive security.

With these improved data flow options, owners and OEMs will gain the ability to gather information from industrial automation systems, use analytics, and improve the efficiency and uptime of processes and equipment.

Benson Hougland is vice president of marketing, Opto 22. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Keywords: Mobile technology, IT, OT

Mobile technology improvements have increased user demand for them to be used on the plant floor.

Mobile technology can improve efficiency, but it also comes with cybersecurity concerns.

As technology advances, more applications may become exclusive to only mobile devices.

Consider this

What is your or your company’s biggest concern or priority when it comes to implementing mobile technology?

Author Bio: Benson Hougland is vice president of marketing, Opto 22.