Mobile industrial worker

Technologies have enabled industrial workers to get mobile, and there’s no going back.


Greater worker mobility is one of the biggest trends in organizations. Whether it’s called BYOD (bring your own device), “multiple devices,” or just plain “Internet of things,” workers of all sorts—control engineering, instrumentation technicians, plant managers, maintenance personnel, troubleshooters, design engineers, and all manner of factory workers—are becoming mobile workers. They are all using wireless devices to do their jobs. There are lots of reasons. From motor manufacturers to food factories, from paint plants to drink distributors, from oil rigs to service companies, more companies are cutting the fixed wire leash that has been holding back their workers from doing more with less.

Many reasons contribute to the greater use of mobility on plant floors and manufacturing operations, but the reality is that industry has no choice. We’re undergoing one of the biggest shifts in workforce availability in recent history. Baby boomers are retiring and the newer generations just can’t fill the void. Looking at the oil industry, for example, Booz Allen Hamilton found a year or so ago that there are only 1,700 people studying petroleum engineering in 17 U.S. universities, compared to more than 11,000 in 34 universities in 1993. This dramatic reduction in worker resources means more automation in factories wherever possible, greater access to expertise globally, and more responsive organizations employing truly mobile workforces.

Extending reach

Workers must be enabled with the latest technologies and devices so that they can interact with automation controls and machines, from afar if necessary. That means the underling network infrastructure has to be up to the challenge. Until recently, wireless networks haven’t been as robust as many manufacturing operations would like. Thankfully that’s changing rapidly with “industrial-strength” networking that has the kind of capabilities manufacturing operations need. That infrastructure has to withstand a host of factory-style interference, mitigate conflicts, and self-heal to be able to maintain continuity of operations.

As a result, workers can carry mobile devices that more reliably interact with machinery from a sensing and from a reaction perspective. There are still the big red buttons of course, but HMIs (human-machine interfaces) are not always hardwired to the machine anymore. Systems now can enable a worker to monitor and interact with multiple machines and take reactive measures if necessary. For example, wireless radio frequency identification (RFID) based e-Kanban systems operate in motor manufacturers for line side parts replenishments, and mobile computer devices are fixed to forklift trucks that interface with warehouse and ERP systems, as well as wip (work in process) parts and materials tracking systems on the plant floor. Now we’re starting to see machine controls added to the list of mobile device capabilities.

Mobile wireless workers find benefits in companies such as Thermo King, which manufactures transport temperature systems for trailers, truck bodies, and other applications. The company configures production lines with wireless, battery-operated call buttons for parts replenishment. The same wireless infrastructure that staff uses for data communications with laptops and handheld mobile computers is used to receive parts requests to replenish work area parts bins. Since the solution requires no hard wires, it is easy to deploy and, more importantly, enables flexible support of changes to different production line layouts. Production lines can be reconfigured easily, just by remounting the wireless Kanban-like call button. No rewiring is required since the call button is battery operated. Oil companies similarly use wireless systems, sensors, actuators, and other automation technologies for the same reason—flexibility, and a huge saving in manual labor laying power and Ethernet or other protocol lines over a large plant surface.

Once a plant implements a wireless infrastructure that is rugged enough to handle moving vehicles, such as forklift trucks and carriers that might have electromagnetic, metal obstruction, and network interference, then WIP and supply chain applications can be deployed.

This enables mobile workers to carry devices, sometimes firmly fixed to the vehicle, to communicate with the enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) software. That’s what companies like John Deere and Continental Tires of the Americas are doing. They enable mobility on the production floor, making sure that the right parts and materials are used at the right time and that supply chain issues can be reworked in real time. In both cases workers actually “see” the plant-floor configuration on their devices, and can use it as a real-time map.

See what’s going on

Ability to better “see” what is going on is another advantage of wirelessly enabled workers. If you look at intercompany interactions, for example, between Boeing and GE Aviation regarding the 787 Dreamliner engines, engineers can talk to each other with video and voice devices. Looking like a traditional single lens reflex (SLR) camera, the device GE Aviation uses is a wireless-enabled IP telephony and video communications device that even allows for telestration techniques (on-screen mark-ups by both the mobile workers and remote engineers) and the input of other devices (like borescopes) to “see” what’s going on inside an engine or part and get real-time data. These mobile workers can move around the plant and send real-time video to developers in conference rooms using telepresence techniques, for example.

From an automation and controls perspective, wireless is increasingly becoming the norm. Manufacturing industries (discrete, process, and hybrid) are beginning to rely on real-time information gained from wireless networks of sensors installed at key points throughout the factory or field site. This data could be the measurement of air pressure, electrical current, weight load, corrosion, fuel levels, temperature, pipe flow, and the like. These data points are essential to the effective and efficient operations of a safe plant. Many of the most robust wireless sensor systems themselves use self-organizing mesh technology that is tried and tested, and the basis for the WirelessHART and ISA100 standards.

As we move through 2012, wireless technologies will continue to enable worker productivity. We’ll see more handheld devices in tablet form, some ruggedized, others not. There will be multiple devices attached to multiple networks, producing more data. Those involved will want to have more control, more access, and more security, and with it will come more complexity if not implemented in the right way. The biggest issue facing the control engineering and the IT sides of the organization will be the resulting deluge of data—not so much the data-at-rest (stored data for historians and data warehouses, for example), but data-in-motion.

How organizations implement data mobility will demonstrate the value of wired and wireless networks in dealing with real-time information and the effect on controls. Different threads of information can be drawn together in an intelligent network to provide knowledge. Coming full circle, that knowledge will help organizations deal with the lack of skilled workers.

- Peter Granger is senior manager, Cisco Systems. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering. This is part of the March 2012 cover story for the Control Engineering North American print and digital edition. 

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