Mobile data collecting: Power in the palm of your hand

Key concepts Wireless solutions are experiencing unprecedented growth.

By Jeanine Katzel, Senior Editor, Plant Engineering Magazine September 1, 2000

Key concepts

Wireless solutions are experiencing unprecedented growth.

Not a replacement for hard-wired applications, wireless systems are an enhancement that augments and extends the wired system.

Benefits of wireless technology are measurable in terms of efficiency and productivity.

Without a doubt, mobile, handheld solutions are appearing just about everywhere. No, we don’t mean all those cell phones the guys in the cars around you are using-although that’s part of it. Throughout the manufacturing world, workers and managers alike are adopting wireless and mobile technologies to improve their workplace efficiency. Whether they be for data communications, bar code reading, maintenance activities, process monitoring and control, or other applications, devices for the portable and wireless transmission and collection of data are revolutionizing how plants operate.

Mobile computing solutions are not new. Up until recently, however, they have been an expensive, complicated option. Now, thanks to advances in several areas, these drawbacks no longer apply. No longer are devices slow, expensive, and limited. Data can be transferred on any of numerous instruments, from a laptop to a palmtop to a phone. The same level of security can be established in any system-wireless or wired.

Wireless technologies are truly putting power in the palm of your hand and rapidly becoming an option few plants can afford to pass up. The benefits are undeniable, but the decision-making process can be a complicated and ever-growing challenge. The number of available devices, the applications they accommodate, and the capabilities of communications methods are steadily increasing.

An exploding technology

The focus of mobile computing is communication-and communication touches almost every facet of plant operations. Today, virtually anything that can be done through a serial port can be done through RF transmission, including web browsing. Not a replacement for hard-wired applications, wireless systems are an enhancement that augments and extends the wired system.

A number of factors are driving this exploding market. In particular, increased processing power, open protocols, and lower overall costs have spawned a new generation of wearable devices and choices in communications methods. They have also launched a variety of suppliers and vendors offering total solutions for almost every aspect of manufacturing and business.

Users anticipating a move to wireless capabilities should concentrate on two tasks: gathering knowledge about the products and services and analyzing the needs of their specific applications. Information is critical in three areas: devices, communication methods, and solutions/applications.

  • Devices. Handheld devices come in all sizes and shapes and with varying functionality. From laptops and notebooks to handhelds and palmtops to personal digital assistants (PDAs), devices now carry power enough to run even the most comprehensive software at a reasonable cost. Their functions range from bar code reading and inventory control to data monitoring and handling to work order processing and much more.

    • A primary factor contributing to this accelerated growth in devices is the availability of a standard operating system in Microsoft’s Windows CE. Dozens of vendors offer hardware loaded with this OS and dozens more software suppliers offer programs that run on them. The addition of devices using proprietary operating systems (such as 3Com’s PalmOS) increases the playing field even further, letting solution providers approach a customer with innumerable wearable options. Features of these lightweight OSs include instant-on capabilities (no boot up time) and long battery life at an economical price. Wireless communications capability typically can be added to such a portable device for about $200.

    • Communication methods. Mobile communications free the user from the restriction of needing to be connected to a hard-wired network in order to work. Wireless solutions take a number of approaches. Some are actually mobile solutions. They use a batch method in which files are periodically transferred back and forth to the central system using a docking cradle. Or, files are transferred at regular intervals using a modem and dial-up capability. True wireless systems make use of local or wide area networks (LANs or WANs) and radio frequency (RF) communications for the exchange of data.

      • Wireless LAN standards are rapidly reaching the point where solutions can be mixed and matched. Until recently, proprietary systems dictated that devices, networks, and accessories had to be from the same vendor. Open protocols such as IEEE standard 802.11 for wireless LAN networking (see More info box for details on the IEEE standard) have promoted compatibility and interoperability, giving end users the freedom to pick and choose products from various vendors.

      • Solutions/applications. The number of providers offering products to solve particular problems and meet specific needs is growing with user demands. Many complete solutions are available now, with products typically the result of collaborative efforts. In some cases, mobile applications are offered as complete packages from a single vendor.

        • However, more often suppliers partner with applications providers, software developers, hardware manufacturers, and/or value-added resellers or distributors (VARs or VADs) to deliver optimal solutions. Some typical partnerships include those between CMMS/EAMS vendors and mobile maintenance application providers and between device manufacturers and VARs.

          Extending the reach

          Wireless solutions put vital information in the hands of those who need it at the point of performance. Although they offer many benefits, they also require informed choices, attention to design details, and at least some familiarity with the technology prior to installing a system.

          RF transmissions are regulated by the federal government. It presently has assigned three operating frequency bands to cover the technology. They are designated in this way:

        • Industrial at 900 MHz

          • Scientific at 2.4 gHz

            • Medical at 5.8 gHz.

              • Early wireless LAN systems used the 900-MHz range, a limited bandwidth that, although slow, worked well. Today, however, most systems used in manufacturing facilities fall into the 2.4-gHz scientific bandwidth. (IEEE’s 802.11 open interoperability standard applies to this bandwidth.) In this range, near-Ethernet speeds of up to 11 megabits/sec are achievable.

                True wireless technology falls into one of two categories: LANs or WANs. A LAN (also called wireless LAN or spread spectrum technology) is a wireless extension of the wired corporate network. (A wireless system still requires a wired infrastructure.) It is created by deploying transmitters and receivers over an area or throughout a facility to create a footprint of coverage. Access points, as these signal transmission components are called, are connected through an Ethernet port to the existing network. The structure of the system in many ways resembles a small cellular network.

                With a wireless LAN, the plant physically builds its own network infrastructure, and owns and operates the entire system. Costs are concentrated in up-front capital expenditures. There are no recurring use fees for the network.

                A wide area network (WAN), as its name implies, covers greater distances. A WAN may be either public or private. With a public WAN (or public access network), the infrastructure already exists. (Your cellular phone company is an example of a public WAN.) A user pays according to his use of the system. Fees are typically based on the amount of data sent and received and time spent on the network.

                Private WANs are owned and operated by the company needing the capabilities and services of such a configuration. These networks are typically established and used by large organizations such as municipalities, utilities, or public safety centers whose access needs are deemed critical. The owners pay a capital cost for the network and build their own infrastructure.

                Access to this type of network by the owner is unlimited. Although private WANs are very expensive, they offer the advantage of ensured use. No one else shares the network and no one can interfere with its use.

                Making informed choices

                Whether or not a company chooses to use a LAN or a WAN depends primarily on three factors: speed, cost, and coverage required. LANs transmit data faster than WANs, running at megabits per second as opposed to the 10-20 kbits/sec speed of a WAN. Transmission ranges vary with the system and are affected by building topography. Location of access points and positioning of transmitters require a careful survey of the overall installation by knowledgeable professionals.

                Communications equipment always requires a careful analysis of the application and, in most cases, a consultation with a supplier, VAR, or solutions provider. A site survey that determines application needs, products, and system configuration is critical both to selecting the correct devices and establishing the proper placement of transmitters and access points to achieve the required coverage optimally.

                In a typical plant, distance from point-to-point might be 150-300 ft. Bridges (transmission devices) can be used to transmit signals miles away. A properly constructed configuration may have virtually an unlimited range and capacity.

                As an example, a plant may need to connect to a warehouse several blocks away from the main operations site. Traditionally, a line would be leased from a local utility and a fee paid each month for the use of the hard-wired arrangement. With a wireless system, access points or bridge devices relay transmissions to the users and to system servers securely with no wiring requirements. However, access points must be carefully placed to provide overlapping coverage. Once the components are in place, the user incurs no further recurring use costs outside of normal maintenance.

                Site surveys also consider the factors that might cause interference and take them into account when designing a wireless system. Points to review include location and use of cellular phones in the plant and the use of microwave ovens in the facility.

                For example, a powerful industrial microwave oven will cause communications interference if placed too near an access point. In addition, some antitheft security systems operate in the scientific bandwidth and interfere with optimal operation. A site survey looks for these elements and adjusts for them.

                Other features to consider in wireless system design include data transmission capabilities such as guaranteed message delivery and store-and-forward functions. Although most systems continue processing when a connection is temporarily broken, some do not. For example, if a worker operating in a mobile mode enters an area where transmission is blocked, his device should continue to perform, storing transactions automatically until the worker returns to an area of coverage. The device then resynchronizes automatically. Such features are critical to mobile and wireless applications.

                Increasing wrench time

                Wireless and mobile solutions are fast becoming tools that empower the workforce. They have manifested themselves in many areas of the industrial plant, but perhaps most visibly in the maintenance arena. Here, a number of developers and suppliers have entered into agreements with CMMS vendors, working as technology partners to bring effective remote solutions to end users.

                Adding remote capabilities to a CMMS has allowed plant maintenance departments to track all activities, obtain true wrench time on activities, and capture parts used as well as failure codes in an efficient and thorough fashion. The systems minimize paperwork, increase productivity, reduce costs, and perhaps most important of all, help increase the use of the CMMS system by freeing the technician from the office and the desk.

                Until now, most CMMS have made use of terminals placed throughout the plant with fixed-point access. Or, paper work orders are printed and used for data entry at a fixed terminal. Wireless or mobile applications provide an application on a small footprint in a portable, or wearable, device. The technician then has access to the information he needs, interactively, from wherever he is in the plant throughout the day.

                Essentially, these systems have helped plants shift from a reactive to a predictive environment by making data easily and more accurately accessible. They offer the potential for significantly increasing productivity and efficiency and for cost savings. Workforce productivity gains of 20% or more have been documented by users who have deployed some type of mobile technology.

                In addition, handheld, wireless systems have been shown to accelerate the implementation of a CMMS as well as reduce the risks. Because wireless handheld devices are easy to use, a maintenance worker can be trained quickly. Providing them with a new tool that simplifies their job reduces the risk of rejection. Because activities are recorded as completed, paperwork is already done at the end of the workday. No additional data entry is required and all activities are tracked and monitored.

                Moving beyond maintenance

                The benefits of wireless technology do not stop at maintenance. They impact many aspects of plant operations and the future is bright for applying wireless concepts to a growing number of plant engineering tasks. In process control, for example, any system with an Ethernet or serial port can be made wireless using a few simple tools. At the PLC level, many systems already utilize LAN connectivity to provide sensor trouble information or trigger a transaction showing current readings. Devices can be easily enabled or disabled wirelessly at relatively low cost.

                Holding even more promise are tiny sensing devices embedded in equipment to transmit information about their status or condition. Wireless transmissions alert personnel or a CMMS that the equipment is ready for PM or in need of servicing. Process lines, conveyors, and innumerable other systems can be similarly equipped.

                As applications through a web-browser increase, they bring with them further exciting new opportunities for accessing software and processing data via wireless devices. In fact, the deployment of web-based applications and the integration of voice and data capabilities are the indisputable goals of wireless technologies. Combining voice and data in the same device (called voice over IP ) can put a Windows CE operating system, bar code reading capabilities, a cell phone, and a built-in web browser at a user’s fingertips.

                The need for mobility impacts not only the plant floor technician, but affects the office worker as well. In response to this need, an initiative started by a number of cell phone/mobile data vendors called bluetooth technology provides for the development of standards for in-office, RF, LAN configurations. This network technology combines wireless communications capabilities with other applications to harness information quickly. (See the More info box for other resources on this concept.) For example, a user can initiate connectivity, exchange data, and acquire e-mail simply by booting up his computer and having an active wireless card.

                A future unplugged

                Perhaps among the biggest benefits of the proliferation of wireless systems is the ability of plant facilities staffs to operate in an assertive fashion instead of merely reacting to emergencies. Palmtop power should result in a manufacturing environment that can count on a higher percentage of uptime, lower repair costs, and the ability to be more reactive to customer needs. Being able to count on systems operating and producing what is wanted and needed leads to improved asset utilization that impacts the entire profitability of the company.

                Systems that were viewed as a luxury only a short time ago are now available to average users. Complete wireless turnkey solutions can be installed for about $3000 a user and can improve workers’ effectiveness in a measurable fashion. Those venturing into wireless technologies for the first time should not try to acquire expertise in all technologies. Although the choices are many, knowledgeable suppliers and providers can offer complete, technically sound solutions.

                If getting started is difficult or uncertain, begin by deploying the proposed system one piece at a time. Equip a few critical users with handheld devices. When they are acquainted with using those devices, add the wireless capability. Once that function is operating smoothly, expand it to the remaining workforce.

                Regardless of where you are in the technology game, wireless applications are here and growing. And wireless computing power in the palm of your hand can benefit your plant and your life. Devices that use the same infrastructure for data collection, wireless computing, voice, and paging may sound like something from Star Trek or Star Wars, but they are not a futuristic concept. They are here today-and will be tomorrow.

                Plant Engineering magazine acknowledges with appreciation the special contributions made to this article by the following companies: iMedeon, Alpharetta, GA; Syclo, Barrington, IL; and WAV, Inc., West Chicago, IL.

                Bringing speed and safety to inspection procedures

                CHALLENGE: Simplify inspection procedures performed by technicians at petrochemical and refinery operations to speed activities and increase safety.

                SOLUTION: Replace wired data collection systems with wireless devices that will allow workers to move more quickly through cramped and crowded locations free of tethers and cords.

                Wireless technology has meant added efficiency and safety for a midwestern inspection services firm. The company employs more than 750 technicians in the field, providing inspection and repair services primarily to the refinery and petrochemical industries. Technicians are assigned to customers at locations nationwide. They collect data both for regulatory compliance and for preventive maintenance.

                Primary activities include the inspection of piping, most of which is elevated. Workers typically operate in precarious positions, negotiating catwalks, rigging, and other difficult-to-access areas, just to reach what they need to inspect. One of the biggest problems the technicians face is negotiating the cabling of the tools they use to collect the required ultrasonic and radiographic data.

                Cabling frequently gets in the way of the job and often presents a potential safety hazard. Any kind of wiring is worn and damaged by being dragged over hot or rough surfaces. The devices stay in good shape, but the data transmission is interrupted by deteriorating transmission media. If the cabling could be eliminated, there would be nothing to break or damage.

                The company is solving the problem by adopting wireless technology. The wireless data collection devices eliminate the cumbersome nature of the inspection equipment greatly. They offer a better data transmission method and eliminate the safety hazards of tripping or falling over cabling. Customers are very supportive of the move to the new equipment because they know how difficult these tasks can be. Both the inspection firm and its clients will save money in the long run through operations that are more productive and efficient. The firm is also planning to adopt the use of a wireless application that will let workers collect not only physical data, but time sheet, job costing, and invoicing information as well.

                Information for this section was provided by Jim Kovarik, General Manager, NDE Technology Group, PCMS, a div. of Conam Inspection, Glendale Heights, IL. The wearable and handheld RF data capturing devices used by the inspection firm are being supplied by WAV, Inc., West Chicago, IL ( through one of its VAR partners.

                Maintenance goes wireless

                CHALLENGE: Eliminate the burden of paperwork and capture more precise data for preventive and corrective maintenance procedures.

                SOLUTION: Integrate a handheld data collection and mobile computing solution into the plant CMMS.

                At a Colorado Springs, CO, manufacturing plant, mounting paperwork had become a drag on productivity for the maintenance staff. Technicians found themselves scattered at computer terminals, entering data about the equipment maintenance they had performed. This slow, cumbersome process kept them from accomplishing more critical work.

                The company, a major vendor of testing and measurement equipment, urgently needed to overhaul its inefficient system for capturing PM and corrective maintenance information. It found a solution in a handheld, mobile computing product that works with its CMMS. In essence, the system moves real-time information between the plant CMMS and technicians’ Windows CE-based palmtop computers.

                The benefits of the system were swift and strong. It eliminated the plant’s need for manual documentation, freeing technicians to handle more work around the plant and improving the accuracy of collected data. Time savings and productivity increases covered the cost of deploying the system in 4 mo. The plant is actually able to do more jobs in the same amount of time. Technicians are completing 400-500 work orders per month, a 20% increase over the previous method.

                Eliminating paperwork has helped maintenance technicians slash about 15 min off each major work order. The company has also enjoyed significant savings on the cost of paper, which is no longer needed for copies of work orders. In addition, the more reliable data being captured has enhanced the company’s ability to control costs and improve its budgeting. Instead of estimating how long it might take to complete a certain job, a technician now captures the true time spent on the equipment. The system provides valid data for more accurate budgeting and charge-backs.

                Using a handheld, mobile system also kept the plant from having to create a new method for tracking materials used from remote stock rooms. Technicians were now able to check out materials using their handheld PCs. Another improvement in the company’s maintenance process came from the system’s easy-to-use interface, which lets workers review work orders based on location, equipment, or other factors. Messaging capabilities let technicians interact seamlessly with supervisors or dispatchers.

                The system has also helped the company streamline and reorganize its support functions. Clerk typists who once assisted maintenance technicians with data entry have been reassigned to more crucial management support roles.

                Before choosing this system, the company researched other alternatives, but found that this approach best fit its need for an inexpensive, accessible, wearable, easy-to-use solution. The system features off-line options that do not require continuous connectivity to work and supports economical Windows CE devices that have long battery lives. The firm initially selected an option in which technicians connect to the server to process work orders by placing their palmtop PCs into a docking cradle attached to a networked desktop computer. However, it has since decided to deploy the system’s wireless capabilities in the future.

                Training on the system has been relatively smooth. The solution is as easy to configure as the CMMS. Each user who implements the tool does so differently. This particular solution is built on a three-tiered system: client, agent, and server. The server has a scriptable interface to the CMMS. The first step in the installation was to analyze how the product could best be used and to determine the correct configuration. Next, a systems integrator was sent by the vendor to the plant to train a pilot group of technician users.

                The product is supportable from offsite, so if the plant were to make a configuration change that produces an error, the product self-diagnoses and the vendor can write corrective code and provide a downloadable solution directly to the plant. The vendor can rapidly troubleshoot and resolve problems.

                In this case, the biggest challenge to implementing the technology was altering the technicians’ mindset. The company explained that methods and technology had changed and that maintenance needed to start giving accurate information on what was being done. Once they bought into the reason for the system, few difficulties remained. The system has run flawlessly and produced measurable benefits.

                The system discussed in this case is SMART for Maintenance from Syclo, Inc. ( The CMMS is Maximo from PSDI ( The plant is Agilent Technologies, Colorado Springs, CO.


              • Boosted number of work orders completed each month by 20%.

                • Achieved savings of 15 min per major work order by eliminating paperwork.

                  • Captured more precise performance data, which led to better cost controls and more accurate budgeting and charge-backs.

                    • Reassigned administrative staff from data entry to more crucial management support.

                      • More info

                        IEEE standard 802.11, 1999 edition, on information exchange between systems is available from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., customer service department, by phone at 800-678-IEEE or e-mail at or visit the web site at

                        Bluetooth wireless technology on personal connectivity is explained in more detail at

                        Many companies offer wireless products, services, and solutions, with more being added to the list every day. Following is a small sample of resources representing a variety of wireless areas including maintenance, automation and controls, bar code technology, general communications, and total solutions.



                        GE Fanuc Automation

                        iMedeon, Inc.


                        Peregrine Systems


                        Qualcomm, Inc.

                        Rockwell Software

                        Syclo LLC

                        Symbol Technologies


                        TMA Systems

                        WAV, Inc.