By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
The gadgets are always glitzier on the other side of the fence. So it might seem pre-ordained that the fast-changing and endlessly hyped commercial tablet computers and smart phones will move onto plant floors and industrial machines.
However, all those iPads and Androids have a long way to go before they can be used in many dirty, wet, harsh and hazardous manufacturing settings—not to mention securing the safety ratings required in potentially explosive areas. Still, this doesn't mean handheld operator interface (OI) can't steal a few fancy, Apple-like functions, or that tablets and phones can't serve in some non-hazardous, manufacturing facilities—if some aren't already.
"Users want handheld OIs, so they can have the same functions of a stationary HMI, but move it freely where they want into different machine areas. This helps them retain control, stay safer and prevent damage when they're clearing jams, and also helps during initial setup of runs when they need to look into a machine and make sure they're hitting specific sensor targets," explains Abdulilah Alzayyat, product manager for drives, motors and HMIs at Bosch Rexroth (www.boschrexroth.com). "For instance, our two handheld HMIs, IndraControl VCH and IndraControl VEH embedded PC, can plug into different TCP/IP Ethernet ports on machines. The approximately 25 ft cabled connection means they don't need batteries, allows better communications, and lets them have safety and e-stop buttons and single-motion jog back. This is why many handheld OI users don't see the need to go wireless yet."
Rob Cotner, marketing manager for Pro-face America (www.profaceamerica.com), reports that he sees a lot more handheld OIs being used as on-demand, plug-in maintenance tools, for example, in remote pump monitoring or in small enclosures where you might not need an HMI for more than five minutes per month. "Our AGP 3000 handhelds use our GP-Pro 2.7 operating system and software, and come in cable-direct and plug-in versions, so they can do the same jobs as a panel-mounted HMI, including having a three-contact e-stop button, as well as an enable switch that gives users another way to stop the machine if they drop the handheld or leave it somewhere," he says. "Handheld OIs are evolving towards wireless because of its potential convenience, but there are still many safety, power and wireless communication protocols to resolve first, so wired handhelds always will have a place if they give users the visibility they want into their applications."
There's a middle area between tethered and wireless handheld OIs that is occupied by battery-powered devices that users can plug into machines or access via short-range wireless links, notes Bob Mullins, industrial product manager for Beijer Electronics (www.beijerelectronics.com), formerly QSI. For example, Beijer's QTerm G58 has a 10-hour battery, runs Windows CE, has an Internet browser, and is sealed and drop tested. "Many users need to be there when machines or applications make changes, so I think we'll see more wireless handhelds for service and maintenance jobs, such as setting pressure on printing rollers, and this will open new opportunities we didn't know we had before."
Commercial, high-volume handheld PDAs will disappear in favor of tablet computers and smart phones, predicts Ramal Murali, president of Software Horizons (www.shorizons.com), which manufactures software on chips and SDS cards for industrial PDAs, panels and handhelds. "But rugged PDAs will continue in hazardous applications, especially those that require devices with Class I, Div. 2 ratings or have to be explosion-proof," Murali says. "If you've already got a rugged PDA, then you don't need an iPad. However, because web browsers and cloud computing services will be the operating systems of the future, it's not going to matter as much what type of interface each user has because data processing will be done in that cloud. We're already approaching a cloud-based, metaphorical PDA with our Instant HMI software, which any device with a browser can access."
In fact, Invensys Operations Management (www.invensys.com) reports that its new Smart Glance smart phone application is already working with its Wonderware Mobile Reporting connector to analyze subscribers' production and historian data with a cloud-based hosting service, and then relay results back to users' phones.