Workforce Development

How to transition from traditional to digital plant-floor technologies

Improving plant efficiencies starts with bridging the gap between workforce generations. Generation X can help connect traditional industrial applications with digital manufacturing. See three benefits of mobility on the plant floor and implementation advice.

By Nate Kay and Lindsey Kielmeyer, MartinCSI April 17, 2018

By leveraging Generation X’s interpersonal skills, the understanding of processes before and after technological advancements, and the patience acquired during times of transition, manufacturers can use Gen Xers to facilitate mentoring programs between older and younger workers to keep everyone engaged with new technologies—mobile industrial technologies specifically.

Millennials are getting a lot of attention in part because of the gap between them and the aging baby boomer generation. It’s understandable, millennials now make up the largest share of the American workforce and baby boomers are continuing to work well into their 60’s and 70’s. Gen X is the demographic of people following the baby boomers and precede millennials and they can help bridge the gap between the two to help improve a plant’s overall efficiency by understanding traditional analog technology and adopting mobile technologies.

The narrative of differences should change to focus on Gen X and the connections they can build. Gen X wasn’t born with technology; technology grew with Gen X. They remember a time before cell phones and desktop computers. They were the first generation to experience the birth of around-the-clock information, expect programming on demand, grew up playing video games, and started digital socialization. They should be the generation that connects traditional analog ways and the digital information age.

For example, imagine the baby boom generation is a plant running traditional analog technologies and the millennials are the mobile computers and connected devices in the age of digital manufacturing. With a lot of conflict and contrast between the two, there’s a need for compromise and bridge the arc. Gen X can be the bridge between analog and digital by connecting the plant floor to mobile devices. Going mobile offers many benefits and it can be implemented while keeping cost and security in mind. 

Three benefits of going mobile

Going mobile offers many potential advantages such as increased safety, convenience, productivity, and efficiency. While the individual benefits vary depending on the application and the client’s needs, see three common benefits below.

1. Plant-floor mobility saves time.

Most industrial controls systems rely on operator interface screens to monitor and control a system or process. Typically, these interfaces run on a PC or industrial computer installed in a fixed location such as inside a control room or mounted to the front of an industrial enclosure. Having to monitor and control the system from a fixed location can have an adverse impact on productivity and troubleshooting. The user may have to stop what they are doing, walk over to the operator interface, and take readings or make setpoint changes before returning to the production area. While troubleshooting an issue, maintenance personnel often walk back and forth between the operator interface and the system they are working on to compare the physical system with the information displayed on the operator interface. Mobile devices can eliminate many of these issues.

Mobile technology allows plant personnel to monitor and control the system freely from any location on the plant floor. They can inspect or operate the physical process while viewing the operator interface simultaneously.

For example, a major automotive manufacturer had an issue that was causing safety and productivity concerns. They had a large parts storage, search, and retrieval conveying system that was causing operators to frequently walk back and forth between the equipment and operator interfaces and cross-checking inventory screens with the physical system. To access the interface or to determine the cause of a mechanical fault, the operators often had to traverse moving machinery and walking long distances around and over the top of equipment.

This presented a potential safety risk to the operators and a lack of efficiency. The best solution was to add a mobile version of the interface screens. The addition of a mobile tablet allowed operators to monitor and control the system from anywhere in the production area eliminating safety concerns and the time wasted walking back and forth to check screens.

2. Remote monitoring and notifications decrease travel.

With remote access, managers can receive alarm notifications and real-time status updates on their mobile devices, which assists with troubleshooting, reduced downtime, and help eliminate travel time. For example, remote monitoring and notifications were set up for an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) client that produces and maintains machines throughout the United States. They received a call that one of their machines, located in a different state, was having an issue. Typically, a technician would have to get in a car or airplane to troubleshoot the issue. However, by using mobile alarm notifications, the client determined a programmable logic controller (PLC) battery was low. Instead of wasting time and money to send a technician on-site, the client shipped a new battery.

3. Data collection and sharing identify bottlenecks.

Going mobile also permits data from the plant floor to be collected, analyzed, and merged with data from the business side. Machine data previously invisible or not tracked can now be seen in real-time and increase efficiency.

For example, a cloud-based mobile data collection system was designed for an industrial manufacturer. This allowed the company to collect data from machines on the plant floor, store it in a database, and share this data with business managers to bridge the information gap between the plant floor and the office floor.

On the business side, information technology (IT) professionals analyzed the collected data, merged it with available information, and used the combined results to determine the machine was operating at 50% efficiency. Business intelligence software was then used to provide managers with real-time access to these reports. Management, engineering, and IT were working together for the first time to create a strategic plan to improve machine efficiency for all their manufacturing facilities. 

Implementing a mobile system

A common misconception is the customer will have to perform a major or expensive upgrade of existing equipment to go mobile. However, this is often not the case. When it comes to older equipment and non-Ethernet protocols such as serial, Profibus and DeviceNet, a variety of communications gateways can be added to enable mobile communications without having to upgrade existing equipment. While it is often a good idea to upgrade legacy equipment, a pre-configured mobile interface can be added to many legacy systems without having to perform expensive upgrades if cost is a prohibiting factor.

Strong security involves a layered approach and begins with the basic network architecture. One common misconception related to the network architecture is that to facilitate mobile access, the existing controls equipment should be placed on the business/enterprise network or given direct internet access.

In most cases, this is not necessary and would also be inconsistent with best cybersecurity practices. Controls equipment such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) computers often exist on a private network and, in most cases, should remain on a private network.

This does not mean the equipment needs to run in a secured vault without outside access. One method for achieving access is the creation of an industrial demilitarized zone (DMZ). DMZs, used in many IT applications, allow for secure mobile access to industrial control systems (ICSs). DMZs maintain isolation between the private controls network and the public-facing enterprise network. They allow the two networks to communicate through a firewall or another controlled access point.

Instead of merging controls equipment directly onto the enterprise network, or giving the equipment direct internet access, an industrial DMZ can be set up by using devices, such as edge-of-network gateways, proxy computers, and virtual private networks (VPNs) to allow for secure and controlled access with mobile devices. Mobile devices and other public facing devices can then access information about the control system through the DMZ. DMZs also can incorporate security features such as encryption using protocols like transport layer security (TLS) and secure sockets layer (SSL)- based security.

Gen X plant-floor bridge

Gen X has the skills needed to build that bridge between the divide between the baby boom and millennial generations. By going mobile, manufacturers can attract the millennial workforce and reap the benefits of improved efficiency, increased productivity, and reduced time for troubleshooting and maintenance on the plant floor.

Nate Kay is a project manager at Martin CSI and Lindsey Kielmeyer is the marketing coordinator at MartinCSI. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


KEYWORDS: Generation X, baby boomers, millennials

How Generation X can help improve efficiencies within a plant

How mobile solutions can optimize plant operations Implementing a mobile system.

Consider this

How can your plant facility improve efficiencies with mobile solutions?