Mobility

Industrial access on the go

Adoption of industrial automation mobile access continues to increase, as technologies improve, and user concerns are addressed.

By Bill Dehner December 21, 2021
Courtesy: AutomationDirect

Mobile connectivity is a topic of great interest for most consumers who have become reliant on convenient access to information, technologies and personal communications via phones and tablets. For the industrial automation sector, much has been written in the past few years about applying mobile technologies for visualization and data access. This is an example of industry following commercial trends — closely but with some lag — enabled by a variety of new hardware, software and networking options.

What kind of mobile access adoption levels are occurring within industry, and what challenges are being uncovered as users begin making headway with implementations? To gauge the situation, AutomationDirect surveyed industrial users in June 2016 and again in August 2021. The findings are that many industrial users, with increasing numbers in recent years, are using remote access techniques via the Internet and PC-based web browsers.

About five years ago, only about 28% of respondents were using any form of mobile devices to accomplish this. This number has expanded significantly since that poll, as the latest survey now indicates a whopping 62% of respondents use mobile devices to connect to their industrial automation systems daily, weekly or at least monthly.

This article addresses some other recent findings and trends associated with mobile industrial automation access.

Figure 1: HMI devices with or without local displays, such as the AutomationDirect C-more EA9 series headless HMI can serve data and display information to mobile devices. Courtesy: AutomationDirect

Figure 1: HMI devices with or without local displays, such as the AutomationDirect C-more EA9 series headless HMI can serve data and display information to mobile devices. Courtesy: AutomationDirect

Making mobile meaningful

There are many technical approaches to creating mobile access, and these methods can be used individually or in combination. Mobile connectivity can be strictly site-based, or it can extend to the cloud for a worldwide mobile experience. Some of the more popular technical combinations are:

  • One or more programmable logic controllers (PLCs) connect with a local hardware-based human-machine interface (HMI) operator terminal, which in turn serves data and displays information to mobile devices (See Figure 1).
  • PLCs or HMIs transmit data to cloud-based brokers using lightweight message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) publish/subscribe communications, and mobile apps are then used to access this data.
  • One or more PLCs connect with an onsite or cloud-based PC-based HMI/supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), which in turn serves data and display information to mobile devices.
  • Cloud-capable PLCs connect directly to cloud-based Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) services offered by vendors, or by other providers such as Microsoft Azure (See Figure 2), providing worldwide mobile access to users.

Some users require basic indication of a few data points, while others are expecting a graphical HMI experience similar to what is offered by a PC-based HMI. For those users looking to add mobile access to their systems, there are more options than ever before.

Figure 2: Cloud-based IIoT platforms are a popular way to connect with PLC data and make it available for remote and mobile users, as these services are easy to configure, secure and scalable. Courtesy: AutomationDirect

Figure 2: Cloud-based IIoT platforms are a popular way to connect with PLC data and make it available for remote and mobile users, as these services are easy to configure, secure and scalable. Courtesy: AutomationDirect

How important is mobile access?

It seems like nearly every digital device in everyday life supports mobile access, perhaps even to the extent of overload. For industrial automation systems, there are many reasons to add mobile connectivity.

Operations personnel can use mobile apps to visualize automated equipment and systems, regardless of where they are working. This lets experts interact with operations throughout a site or across many sites, even spanning the world. Maintenance technicians can receive notification of alarms and trends indicating trouble so they can respond quickly. Engineers can gather more data and analyze it to optimize production.

The survey showed more than 80% of industry users rank mobile connectivity, visualization and data access as somewhat or very important. With such a high interest level, it becomes important to understand roadblocks to adopting industrial automation mobile access.

Mobile roadblocks

Although mobile access for industrial automation systems provides many user benefits, it also increases the exposure to cyberattacks. For end users who don’t currently use mobile access, more than 80% cited security concerns. Field devices like PLCs and HMIs used to provide mobile access should have security features built in, and they should only use secure communication protocols and services (See Figure 3).

To a lesser degree, the survey showed that users who have not yet adopted mobile access want solutions offering good performance, intuitive apps and low cost. These are common user goals for any technology, and they can be met by using apps that display the most useful features of traditional HMIs while working with potentially limited bandwidth.

More potential limitations surround the mobile devices themselves. End users not yet using mobile are concerned about how much can really be done using such a small screen, how to create procedures around mobile use and how to coordinate approval between the operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) departments.

Based on responses from users who have deployed mobile access, it appears they are addressing some of these concerns with company-owned devices. About 50% of these users rely on company-owned devices with limited access and about 25% use company-owned devices with full access. Only about 25% of companies let users connect with employee-owned devices.

Figure 3: Modern PLCs such as the AutomationDirect BRX family, provide many ways to enable secure remote connectivity, such as serving up web pages directly, publishing data to the cloud via MQTT(S), taking advantage of Microsoft Azure certified connectivity and more. Courtesy: AutomationDirect

Figure 3: Modern PLCs such as the AutomationDirect BRX family, provide many ways to enable secure remote connectivity, such as serving up web pages directly, publishing data to the cloud via MQTT(S), taking advantage of Microsoft Azure certified connectivity and more. Courtesy: AutomationDirect

The mobile experience

For those end users who have moved ahead and implemented mobile access, there are some positive findings, but also indications of work to be done. The survey indicates almost 20% find the mobile capabilities to be exactly as they hoped and expected, but more than 50% think that mobile access works well but does need more features. On the other hand, more than 20% of mobile users find the experience severely lacking in capability. Beyond the end user experience, more than 20% of respondents think mobile is difficult to configure and manage.

Here are some benefits and areas of improvement that end users are finding as they take advantage of mobile access, listed in order from most to least per the survey:

  • Warning and alarm notifications
  • Diagnostics and preventive maintenance
  • Process improvements
  • Quality control
  • Energy efficiency
  • Production forecasting.

Some users indicate convenience and flexibility are key benefits. Mobile provides the potential to deliver trouble indications and key performance indicators (KPIs) — whenever and wherever operators, maintenance personnel and engineers are located — but some users are not fully satisfied with their company’s remote access implementation.

Hitting the road with mobile access

The survey shows the industrial automation sector, following commercial and consumer trends, is progressively adopting mobile access technologies. As with many cases of industry adopting commercial technology, there is a lag due to multiple concerns. This is expected because industrial systems are mission-critical in terms of safety and uptime, so all new technologies must be carefully vetted for security and performance.

Fortunately, there are many options for designing secure remote access into new systems or adding it to existing equipment. Many of the main concerns around security, performance and simplicity have been addressed. Users can choose a right-sized approach that meets their needs and provides future scalability. Mobile industrial automation access is here to stay, and all signs are that it is delivering value today and will continue to improve.


Bill Dehner
Author Bio: Bill Dehner has spent the majority of his 14-year engineering career designing and installing industrial control systems for the oil and gas, power and package handling industries. He has a BSEE with an associate degree in avionics from the USAF and is currently working for AutomationDirect as a technical marketing engineer.