Mobile HMI improves plant operations

Cover Story: Once a mobile device is connected to the IIoT and can access real-time manufacturing data, it can improve plant operations by helping decision makers when they need the information.

By Richard Clark July 29, 2016

Data collection is the first step to make decisions via mobile human-machine interface (HMI) devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. With the right data collected, mobile HMI solutions help bridge the gap between control systems and mobile devices needing access to their information.

While these solutions may be installed as just a window into the manufacturing process, data collection functionality also can provide visualization and analysis tools, both of which are critical for mobile HMI applications. There is a whole process that needs to be understood that starts with data collection and ends with better decision making through use of mobile HMI devices. 

Modern HMI platforms

From the industrial side, the modern HMI is well-positioned to bridge the gap between control systems and mobile devices shown in Figure 1. Users typically need flexibility to access the HMI and its data from mobile devices.

Modern HMI solutions commonly start development, and perhaps even run time use, on a Microsoft Windows platform connecting to a local plant network. But today, Windows isn’t the only kid on the block, and an HMI’s ability to run on different operating systems and hardware platforms has its advantages.

HMI run time applications can be hosted in different locations, and users need to be able to download each application to different operating systems. Common operating systems for run time hosting include Windows Desktop, Server, and Embedded editions. Linux, Wind River VxWorks, and others also are often used. Fitting the application to the operating system yields the most cost-effective solution since only the required functions for each application need to be purchased, configured, and maintained. For mobile devices, the capability to run on Google Android and Apple iOS/OS X is required, along with Windows-based operating systems for laptops.

Modern HMIs provide this flexibility by allowing development on a Windows PC and then downloading a run time or app to a variety of platforms and devices without needing to change graphics, templates, symbols, or trends. This capability greatly simplifies implementation of mobile HMI run time applications. Mobile devices use the HTML5 standard to make this happen by automatically scaling the HMI screens based on the target platforms. What is deployed on a Windows-based HMI can now be quickly accessed on a mobile device, but first, you need the right data. 

It starts with the data

For many applications, all the data needed to implement a complete Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solution has not arrived in the hands of decision makers just yet. The first step is to collect the data from field devices, and the next is to get it in the hands of those who need it.

For example, an application of IoT with industrial and commercial relevance is the EcoNet Home Comfort WiFi module for select Rheem water heaters. This application connects via WiFi to the Internet and can provide alerts and notifications, such as leak detection, directly to a mobile device. It also allows cost-saving functions, such as vacation mode and temperature adjustments. The connection to a Web portal also enables long-term collection of usage data.

IIoT applications are being implemented more slowly than commercial counterparts in many cases due to 24/7 uptime requirements, cybersecurity concerns, and other factors. But some companies are providing data collection and storage as a service.

For example, GE’s Smart Grid service integrates collected data with the electrical generation and distribution system infrastructure. In theory, collected data can be used to increase productivity, promote renewable uses, empower consumers, reduce CO2 emissions, increase productivity, and prevent overloads and brownouts. Expected success of smart grid applications like this one will help highlight the importance of real-time and historical data to improve reliability and optimize machines, systems, and enterprise.

In other manufacturing applications, data typically originates with field devices connected to industrial controllers. These controllers are in turn connected to HMIs, which provide data distribution to mobile devices. 

Accessing data via mobile devices

The right process and machine data needs to get into the hands of the decision makers, where and when it is needed. At this point, the sweet spot for many mobile device users is metrics or statistics about the machine or process. Direct control of a machine using a mobile device is also an option, but this is typically restricted to local users, such as plant operators or technicians.

Particular software and other HMI software platforms have several options to access data and graphics present in plant floor or control room HMIs. An HMI run time application can be installed on an office PC to provide an identical user experience, but this is typically overkill.

A better choice for these remote HMI applications is a local run time or a thin client where a utility, such as a secure viewer, is installed on a PC or other platform connected to the local plant network and capable of hosting Internet Explorer. This solution is very cost-effective because these plant networks are typically existing and well-secured.

If the HMI is remote and outside the facility, secure web-based thin clients can be used. Although very similar to the secure viewer thin clients, web-based thin clients use a Web browser to access the HMI through a secure sockets layer (SSL) and other secure methodologies such as encryption. Control functions should be minimized in these applications for obvious reasons, but full viewing rights are typically provided.

To extend remote information access further, a mobile thin client can be used. Using an HTML5-capable browser on a mobile device is a smart and cost-effective way to provide decision makers with the information they need. 

Uses cases

HMI data stored in many different locations is available for remote access by mobile devices. HMIs can store data locally in text files, spreadsheet formats, or a variety of databases and historians. An HMI can be connected to a corporate database or local historian, or even a historian service hosted in the cloud, for data storage and access. Mobile devices can then be connected to these data storage locations.

This data can be viewed and used by engineering, operations, scheduling, and management personnel (see Figure 2). Additional connections allow field engineers and plant floor personnel to access the data via mobile devices, thin clients, or PCs.

Data collected from field devices and viewed on mobile devices has many different uses as listed in the table. Some of these can be implemented just by viewing field device data, such as maintenance and troubleshooting. Other uses require intermediate analysis and/or combination with other data by specialized applications to yield full value as shown in the table below: 

Table: Mobile HMI uses
Viewing and acting on statistical process control (SPC) information
Making projections and predictions
Ordering materials
Checking customer order status
Determining real-time production costs.

For example, statistical process control (SPC) software can reside on the same PC as the HMI and can be used to interpret field device data and provide the resulting actionable process and quality assurance (QA) information to mobile devices. Specifically, SPC algorithms can be used to help adjust real-time control parameters or point out issues before a machine or process starts making bad parts.

Projections and predictions also can be made with data analytic and aggregation software, and this information can be provided to mobile users to help them head off problems before they occur. Other uses for data include predictive maintenance and locating process bottlenecks.

Production data recorded in the HMI can be combined with inventory information from an enterprise resource planning (ERP) or manufacturing execution systems (MES) to alert mobile users regarding material usage and ordering requirements, customer order status, and real-time production costs. 

Better decisions with mobile HMI

Each mobile HMI device can be configured to display only the data needed by the particular user. This simplifies and speeds response-to-received information since only the required data is communicated and displayed. It also provides a level of security and improves operational safety. For example, a local operator might have full access for viewing and control, while a salesperson would only be able to access customer order information status.

Mobile HMI devices let users see how a machine or process is operating and focus on a specific area of interest. For example, a graphical trend view of the data or process shows status at a quick glance, while allowing advanced users to view more detailed information if anomalies are discovered.

For a successful IIoT implementation at a manufacturing facility, the right data must be collected and then presented to decision makers in a manner that allows them to improve operations. As more data becomes available, mobile HMI devices can give users a clearer picture of equipment and processes and help them make better manufacturing and business decisions.

Richard Clark, InduSoft Web Studio application developer at Wonderware by Schneider Electric. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key Concepts

  • Collecting data via mobile HMI devices
  • Improving facility operations using HMI mobile devices
  • The flexibility of modern HMI platforms
  • Uses for mobile HMI.

Consider this

What is the process to implement mobile HMI run time applications for industrial facilities to reach maximum return on investment?

ONLINE extra

See related stories about mobile HMIs linked below.