Wireless mobility architecture, apps, and tips: An extended Q&A

Harry Forbes, a senior analyst for automation at the ARC Advisory Group, answers reader questions after Control Engineering's April 29 webcast on wireless mobility trends.

By Harry Forbes May 2, 2014

A recent Control Engineering webcast on wireless mobility covered infrastructure, hardware, software, and applications. The webcast included a question and answer session afterward and additional reader Q&A follows. Answers below were provided by Harry Forbes, senior analyst for automation at ARC Advisory Group, who was the featured speaker in the webcast. (Link at the bottom to see the Wireless Mobility webcast and additional Q&A.)

Q: How does an employee manage/own his/her own mobile device that his/her company asks be used for on-the-job work?

A: The solution varies. In some cases the MDM will limit your ability to manage it. In others the enterprise may give you more freedom, but monitor the device (and its software).

Q: How do you manage and maintain so many device types? For example, the cost to develop an app that is compatible to iOS, Android, Windows phones must be high.

A: Yes. New technologies like HTML5 will reduce this difficulty, but platform differences remain. IMHO mobile and desktop operating platforms will not converge. There will be greater similarity between mobile apps.

Q: Do you think the Executive VP and that level of Management should have the whole process (Power Generation) on their phones, and make decisions be it penalties on operation, penalties on how the plant is running without being at the plant to see what exactly is going on. I believe this access is unprecedented but could be a slippery slope for the operations personnel.

A: I think there is a very high degree of (internal) transparency with respect to the state of operations is a very good thing, and mobility can add a lot to this. Where and how operations decisions are taken is a different question. Operating personnel need to get accustomed to greater visibility of their actions, I believe. In the past compliance to operating practices was largely a matter of trust. Trust is still important, but verification is now possible (and indeed helpful).

Q: How many customers are currently using actual online direct DCS/SCADA/PLC control via smart devices? If so what type of HMI platforms are being used (java, browsers, or custom client apps on mobile devices?)

A: The usual configuration is to have an instance of the automation system HMI running on a virtual machine and viewed on the mobile device (most often a laptop or tablet) using a remote protocol like RDP. Whether or not these HMIs have operating privileges is a policy decision that is most often made by the end user. That makes it difficult to generalize about "how many." I believe it is a substantial fraction of the total HMIs in use now.

Q: Does it make sense for large mobile device manufacturers (for example Nokia) to shift focus to provide specific enterprise systems as a turnkey solution (as this would remove the responsibility of certification, frequent change of devices, etc)

A: I doubt it. The mobile device business is extremely consumer oriented, for volume reasons. Specialized mobile devices are generally used in industry because often speed of certain tasks, ruggedness, or location certification is needed (examples are bar-code scanners, handheld computers, ruggedized laptops). Suppliers of IT and consumer electronics hardware are generally not willing or able to address these areas by themselves.

At www.controleng.com, this is where you can view this wireless mobility webcast on demand.

– Edited by Jessica DuBois-Maahs, associate content manager, CFE Media, jdmaahs@cfemedia.com.