Mobilizing real-time operational intelligence

Value is achieved by going beyond mobilizing HMI/SCADA screens, connecting multiple systems, and controlling when and what data are sent to which device.

By Kyle Reissner, GE Intelligent Platforms February 11, 2013

Why do companies rarely achieve the efficiency improvements they desire? In my opinion, the top three culprits are:

  1. Singular vision: Most projects depend too much on one person’s vision. Given the time lines to see value (typically one to three years), people often move onto other roles, jobs, and companies, and therefore the vision evaporates.
  2. Time lines: Patience is not rewarded in today’s corporate environment, and this has bled over into the engineering world. If you can’t create, execute, and measure the improvement in six months, it’s not really worth caring about.
  3. Complexity: People want their jobs to be easier, not harder. Most new systems that promise large gains tend to make things more complex and often introduce something new, whether it is a new process, a new way of working, or a new interface. 

When I look at these three reasons more closely, I realize why the term “revolution” is rarely used in the industry. In fact, over the years, I’ve learned that if I hear this term, it’s usually a marketing-fed statement with little grounding in reality. 

Is mobility really a revolution?

In the past 18 months, I have listened to managers, engineers, and operators from all types of industries talk about how mobile smart technology can be applied in their operations. I’ve learned that simply putting a smart device in employees’ pockets so they can access existing systems isn’t revolutionary; it’s an expected tool that helps them get work done and has been for years. 

Almost every operation I visited had employees using a wide variety of consumer-grade smartphones and tablets to link to remote desktops and existing industrial systems, to send/receive e-mail, and to send multimedia text messages. Some were using apps such as Evernote, Skype, and Google Drive to share and collaborate. 

Steve Johnston, principal engineer at Bayer, told me that he had several iPads on order that he intends to assign to operators so they can access existing SCADA systems through an app over their internal plant Wi-Fi network. This will enable the operators to fully monitor his SCADA systems from anywhere on the Bayer site—using this new tablet device to access existing systems while providing a level of mobility around the plant.

The discussion then turned to whether or not industrial mobility ends at simply providing access to existing systems such as a SCADA, DCS, or a building management system. As Steve and I explored how the iPad’s use could be expanded, the more potential uses we uncovered to extend its use beyond just accessing his SCADA. Could it provide additional value to his engineering peers, management, and plant floor operators if it could access all of the different systems across the site and have the users define what data they see? 

Discussions with others expanded on this concept and sparked ideas on how to use geo-positioning similar to what is used in consumer apps such as Foursquare, Yelp, Google Maps, and Facebook, where data are filtered based of physical location. If we could apply geo awareness to industrial data, the value to the end user would be expanded further because it could enable users to quickly navigate the mountain of data within a plant and notify them of alarms wherever they are.

As I traveled, I sensed a similar realization across many industries that plant managers, engineers, and operators were simply thinking too narrowly when it came to applying mobile technologies. 

The real challenge

True industrial mobilization should really focus on pushing information to users in context to where they are physically because mobilizing existing systems that were designed for 24×7 monitoring in central control rooms simply doesn’t provide enough value. The value gold mine is achieved by going beyond mobilizing HMI/SCADA screens, connecting multiple systems, and controlling when and what data are sent to which device. These concepts then would exponentially increase the value of mobile devices for industrial applications. 

Would deploying mobile solutions that go beyond HMI/SCADA deliver the efficiency improvements industry needs? Or would projects like this fall prey to the typical culprits outlined earlier? These types of projects should have the resilience to avoid those pitfalls because everyone understands the benefits of mobile tablets and smartphones, so a visionary isn’t required. 

Adoption resistance also isn’t a factor because the smartphone and tablet consumer revolution is not new and these devices are so simple to use. My three-year-old daughter has learned how to use 99% of the apps on my iPad. Technologies have advanced to a point where software can be configured quickly to sift through the raw data and deliver real information to users, making one’s view of his or her operations simpler and therefore end users’ jobs easier. 

The real challenge industry faces when it comes to mobile is to mimic the end-user ease-of-use of consumer apps while maintaining the intelligence required for industry. The good thing is that there are ways to overcome this monumental challenge. Real-time operational intelligence (RtOI) is a new industrial paradigm that allows managers to think beyond SCADA on the iPad to unlock much more value in data (see Figure 1).

RtOI is now possible because vendors have merged industrial standards with new consumer software technologies in visualization, mobility, analytics, secure connectivity, and collaboration. Through these new software products, RtOI solutions are being deployed to dramatically impact the efficiency of operational personnel with a specific focus on boosting productivity at the operator/supervisor level in weeks (see Figure 2). 

RtOI extends the control room for operators beyond staring at screens and interpreting data; they can move freely around the operations. More advanced solutions have components that actively monitor raw data, run them through analytical models, and push the information to the users based on their geographic location (see Figure 3). Through these advanced and smart devices, users can be prompted with an alarm or an item out of spec, for example, and use a standard interface to reveal not only the information from the system but also advanced analytics with estimated causes of the issue. They can then use the same device to dive down into their SCADA to take action. 

On the user’s side, they deliver the ability to easily consume, tweak, and analyze on their own via standard intuitive user interfaces similar to those employed in the consumer world such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and eBay. This eliminates the pitfall of companies killing projects because they linger on for years and don’t provide near term value. 

Actionable information

The key item to make this all work is the focus on information, and not just raw data. To really unlock an employee’s performance, you have to deliver what means most to the employee—wherever he or she is. Why send fault information to someone who isn’t near the area that requires attention? What’s the use of sending 25 alarms every minute to every client or mobile device and not just to the person who can deal with them? When you start to ask these questions, you begin to understand what is meant by actionable information. 

With RtOI, the system sends the right information to the right person who is in the area so action can be taken to resolve the issue. For example, consider a real-time tag from a SCADA system, a preventive maintenance setpoint from a CMMS, and summarized data from SAP and attach them to an asset such as a pump. When a user selects that pump, or even when the user stands right beside that pump, he or she can see all of the applicable data. The user can overlay the data in a quick trend and make faster decisions about operations instead of logging into three different systems and making the correlations individually. 

Think of RtOI as a connective analytic layer above existing systems that can provide which alarms are present across all the underlying systems along with the reasons why. This layer can also actively monitor the incoming data, such as a temperature measurement, and spark a new alarm based on an advanced algorithm that predicts when that temperature will spike and the top three statistical reasons why it will spike. The data doesn’t always have to be from multiple sources; it can all be from a single SCADA. 

Manufacturers consistently report that 75% of their alarms in their HMI/SCADA/PLC systems are noise. Why would you push all of those to all of your mobile users?

Don’t forget about security

While the spark for widespread adoption of RtOI is easily consumable actionable information anytime anywhere, we must not overlook how mobile devices are secured to operate within or outside the company networks. To realize the full potential of RtOI, industry must be able to adopt consumer mobile devices and expose a level of their operational data onto the Internet in a safe and manageable way. 

Encryption technology and secure by design ideologies have advanced in such a way that secured outside one- or two-way connections are now possible (see Figure 4). This is largely through the introduction of software agents that use the latest encryption methods to get data outside of the control and/or business network to a cloud server and a philosophy that it’s about exposing data elements, not entire systems. There are proven technologies that enable iOS, Android, Windows RT, and BlackBerry apps to use encrypted communications to and from the content servers and hardware fiber isolation solutions that 100% ensure plant data communications are always outbound—all of which, if implemented correctly, can effectively eliminate the exposure to malicious attacks. Providing the option to use any smart device is key to sparking real change and improvements when it comes to industrial mobility and adoption of RtOI solutions. 

The time is right

RtOI brings in a broad array of features that can transform industry and bring productivity to new levels. Much of the world’s major innovations are successful because of timing. For example, the Apple Newton and Palm Pilot devices of the 1990s were colossal failures due to bad timing. Many believe that if those devices had been released 10 years later, they would’ve been successful. Another example is Facebook. It has been a huge success in the past five years because cameras were put on phones, mobile networks are fast enough, large cheap storage exists, and people are comfortable sharing their photos and personal sentiments. 

The time is right for the new RtOI industrial paradigm spearheaded by industrial mobility to take hold. It is starting to happen now as industry is primed to adopt these new technologies, opening tremendous productivity improvement potential. 

RtOI has the power to shift the way industrial operations work from the plant floor—through the operational centers to executive dashboards—unlocking double-digit productivity along the way, all the while doing it quickly and in a IT and controls-friendly secure way. Consider taking a fresh look at how you can harness these new software components and smart mobile devices that could take you beyond simply putting your HMI/SCADA system on a tablet.

Kyle Reissner is senior product marketing manager at GE Intelligent Platforms and is part of GE’s Global Product Management group. In his current role, he focuses on exploring how mobile phone and tablet technologies affect real-time operational intelligence.

This article appeared in the February 2013 Applied Automation supplement to Control Engineering and Plant Engineering, both part of CFE Media.

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