The next big thing is at hand

Engineering and IT Insight: For manufacturing, the next big thing has arrived. Have you noticed? The operator assistant, based on the second generation of smartphones and the software capability to provide situational awareness, will be the “always-on” eyes and ears of operators, listening and looking for problems and patterns not normally visible to operators.

By Dennis Brandl December 20, 2012

This is the time of the year when IT departments are looking for The Next Big Thing (TNBT) so they can plan for purchases, system changes, and organizational restructuring. No one wants to miss TNBT because it will mean that their company will fall behind the technology curve and miss potentially large benefits. Manufacturing IT departments are also looking for TNBT because it often takes a long time to set up support for TNBT, and companies do not want to make investments that will have to be ripped out within a few years. It may come as a surprise, but you may have TNBT for manufacturing IT already in your hand. TNBT answers the problem of getting any information, at any place, and at any time. This has long been the goal of integrated manufacturing where operational staff and engineers would have access to all shop floor data any time they need it. This has worked, provided the “any place” was in front of a computer screen, but for operational staff this is a very restrictive work environment. Operational staff is always on the move, looking and listening to the process.

The next big thing for manufacturing IT may be the next generation of smartphones. We are currently in the first generation of smartphones; remember they were first commercially available only five years ago. However, they have already become indispensable tools for mobile professionals. Today’s smartphone replaces phones, cameras, GPS devices, video recorders, audio recorders, media players, Internet browsers, e-mail interface, compasses, maps, language translation devices, phone books, heart rate sensors, calculators, sound meters, thermometers, remote control devices, bar code scanners, and other dedicated devices too numerous to list. When combined with additional sensors, the smartphone becomes a tool for medical analysis, electronic signal analysis, infrared sensing analysis, and radar, to name just a few applications.

TNBT is the second generation of smartphones. The current generation contains first generation chip sets and applications. Future smartphones will have more processing power. Intel recently announced a prototype 48-core chipset for smartphones. Advances in semiconductor technology will result in more storage capability with terabytes of local data. Imagine this computing power combined with the voice recognition and context analysis of Apple’s Siri ( and the knowledge network of IBM’s Watson (, all available in a handheld device. This software and hardware capability means that TNBT devices can provide “situational awareness.” TNBT devices will be able to use algorithms similar to facial recognition to provide situational awareness and provide it all the time.

Today many systems require an operator in the loop to detect and act on problems because it is impossible to program the responses for all possible situations in classical control systems. TNBT devices will be able to recognize what is going on inside your area or site and determine when something is out of normal but not yet in alarm. Information for this awareness may come from traditional fixed sensors or even by listening for sound patterns such as hisses, whistles, clangs, and bangs. TNBT devices will also be able to listen in frequencies outside of human range to hear indications before they are normally noticeable. TNBT devices will have the ability to listen to conversations between operational staff to understand context and to listen for stress patterns in voices to determine when an abnormal situation is developing. TNBT devices will have video capability, so they will be able to look for abnormal conditions and even for abnormal conditions in infrared and ultraviolet. TNBT devices will become true operator assistants, always watching and always listening for out-of-normal conditions or for events that truly require manual intervention.

There are steps to take to be ready for TNBT devices on your plant floor. These devices will be un-personalized, not like current smartphones, but more like maintenance instruments or handheld radios. They will be assigned to people but will run only a set of approved applications to simplify security and IT support. You will need to extend current policies to handle these smart devices. You will need to ensure that you have either Wi-Fi or 4G coverage at your entire site. You will probably need to add additional process sensors to provide the data needed for true situational awareness. You may need larger historian databases that provide finer data resolution (less filtering) and longer histories, so that patterns can be automatically detected. Plant blueprints may have to be augmented with location data, or alternately every location should be 2-D barcoded so that a TNBT device can bring up relevant information based on a person’s location in the facility.

One additional step can be taken immediately, before TNBT devices even become available, and that is capturing the knowledge of gray-haired operators before they retire. With many facilities running lean and efficient operations, new operators may never see abnormal situations and learn how to react to them. This knowledge capture does not have to go into a formal knowledge base but, using the concepts of IBM’s Watson, can be basic situations recorded in simple documents. Knowledge nuggets, such as “when the middle temperature reading is higher than the bottom temperature, and the flow is greater than 200 L/min, then the airflow is probably going bad, and you need to check the top dampers,” can be recorded as-is and added later to a situational awareness knowledge base.

The next big thing for manufacturing IT may well be the rise of the operator assistant, based on the upcoming second generation of smartphones and the software capability to provide situational awareness. These assistants will be the “always-on” eyes and ears of operators, listening and looking for problems and patterns that are not normally visible to operators. They will then provide assistance to resolve problems, document the problems and resolutions, and leave your operational staff free to perform value-added work in your production facilities.

– Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, N.C., His firm focuses on manufacturing IT. Contact him at Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering,