Counting on Apps for
Process Control

Mar 20, 2013

by Michael MacRae ASME.org

Process-driven manufacturing industries seeking efficiencies in process monitoring and control have been cautious about jumping on the mobile wireless bandwagon for process monitoring and control – and for some good reasons. The rapidly evolving technology and the lack of a clear industry-preferred standard add risk to any full-scale implementation decision. More ominously, a mounting threat of industrial cyber-attacks underscores the vulnerabilities of smart-phone devices to today's sophisticated hackers.

But the benefits of mobile as human-machine interfaces in process engineering are significant. It can empower more workers to spot and fix problems earlier, it connects decision-makers to what's happening on the production floor from any location, and it puts powerful data analytics and graphical reporting functions into the palm of the user's hand. Process automation companies and independent app developers are creating more tools for process control on the go, and industry observers predict new mobile smartphone and tablet apps like SmartGlance, developed by Sarla Analytics, Barrington, RI, represent the wave of the wireless future.

For the process industries, Sarla has teamed its SmartGlance app with process automation company Wonderware's (Lake Forest, CA) Mobile Reporting Connector to offer an integrated system that lets process and quality engineers, production managers, and other decision-makers monitor real-time and historical operational data, alarms, reports, and key performance indicators, from any location.

SmartGlance app screenshots. Image: Smartglance.com

The SmartGlance app works with, and is graphically optimized for, the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Blackberry, Android, and Microsoft Phone 7. The optimized graphical interface puts the relevant information at arm's reach and allows easy viewing on a touchscreen without scrolling through multiple screens or expanding the view. And as a native app, it connects users to their data directly rather than through the company intranet or other Web browser.

SmartGlance gets much of its ease of use from cloud computing. Wonderware's secure cloud-based server puts these reports into the hands of multiple employees in multiple locations without the hassle and expense of purchasing multiple local servers. But for customers who prefer the local option, Invensys now offers a version of the product for on-premises data hosting.

Features at a Glance

Process engineers can use the app to access the Mobile Reporting Connector, which connects to data sources such as Wonderware Historian and other modules. These reports show production trends, equipment effectiveness, and potential trouble spots, and the app translates these complex data into a smartphone-friendly interface that works anywhere where wireless service is available.

Users can monitor both real-time and historical data, monitor activities at more than one plant location, and assess specific activities of individual process lines, alarms, machines, or operators. For engineers who don't like surprises while they're on the road, the system allows them to view and analyze process alarm data. They can monitor individual pieces of equipment, call up the day's most recent alarms, and keep tabs on persistent problems. A module of manufacturing execution system reports allows decision-makers to monitor and benchmark equipment effectiveness and production capacity and efficiency by studying variables such as time, component, or brand. Other Wonderware reporting products measure energy consumption, costs and usage trends; track the status of work orders; and obtain data from remote field assets.

But the product does more than report. It also provides tools that let engineers take action when they foresee problems. Key corporate contact information is accessible with a thumb click, making it easy to email specific reports or charts to someone in the plant who can address the situation. The company says the tool promotes collaboration across an organization, speeds up troubleshooting, and promotes more informed decision-making. Malware on the Move

Malware on the Move

Concerns over data security remain a persistent turn-off for companies considering the switch to mobile technologies. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the known pool of mobile-device-targeted malware grew by 185% over the past year, with an increase of attacks on sites like power plants, water systems, nuclear facilities, chemical plants and oil/gas refineries. The GAO's recent study of the issue recommended a "broad, industry-defined baseline of mobile security safeguards" to protect personal and business data. For process app developers, the heavily-hacked banking industry has shown the way with data encryption and authentication protocols that add layers to firewall around cloud-stored process data.

As the wireless industry becomes more standardized and cyber security experts shore up defenses against the hackers, we can expect to see more innovative engineering apps that keep processes running, managers informed, and quality high.

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

Process automation companies and independent app developers are creating more tools for process control on the go.