Workstation 64a6e22578524

How mobile is your workstation?

July 6, 2023
When will the display interface evolve beyond the need for a physical home?

Mobility is key. Planes, trains and automobiles are all needed for our own mobility. Laptops, notebooks and tablets all allow us to be free of physical encumbrances to do the work we need to do. And don’t forget the cell-/smartphone, which is our everything. Where would be without that?

So, why we are still considering desktop computers for the plant/factory floor. Human-machine interfaces (HMIs) and supervisory-control-and-data-acquisition (SCADA) nodes were all over the place in years gone by. I’ve written about interfaces before. From software and physical interfaces to the location of HMIs on any particular machine or process. It really had everything to do with visibility into the operation.

Normally the HMI would be fixed and mounted on a cabinet, possibly on a gantry arm or some articulated system to get the visibility needed.

Part of the issue we face in the world of software licensing is the fact that it isn’t inexpensive. Many companies are still using run-time protection such as USB security software or, heaven forbid, parallel-port dongles to protect intellectual property. Some are using token-based authentication for run-time protection.

Regardless, there may come a time in your day-to-day operation that an engineering workstation has all the programming and SCADA/HMI development software needed at various places in the plant.

Remember that not all devices reside on a network for many different reasons. Air-gap security is an obvious one. Legacy is probably the main one. Anything more than 20 years old falls into that category for the most part.

A workstation may be an all-in-one box with a 32-inch screen or a simple desktop with a 32-inch screen for specialized monitoring or development work.

In past years, we used a trolley to move these beasts around. It was an open concept, but the safety may have been in question. Hitting bumps and having things fall off was commonplace.

Mobile workstation enclosures can be very useful, similar to having computers fixed in cabinets. They protect the access to things such as USB ports, network connectivity and also have a place to store the mouse and keyboard. The screen would typically be behind a plexiglass cover for protection.

In the environment of a factory or plant floor, there may be multiple stations that have their homes in a corner and then are moved to the location where they will be needed. They may be fixed, but mobile, for machine cleaning and floor preparation, if you will.

Environmental considerations would affect the enclosure’s physicality. Dust-tight vs. water-tight creates different headaches for the specifier, but solutions are available.

Does it matter what the desktop or workstation hardware really is? Probably not, but, with computer prices the way they are now, it’s best to protect them as best as possible.

There is no doubt that a mobile laptop could be used for the same result. Their hardware specifications now rival high-powered desktops, except when it comes to graphics. If video, 3D, virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) is of concern, a laptop may not suffice. Connectivity may also be an issue if you need more than two high-speed USB ports.

I used a Hoffman enclosure for remote workstations in a national distribution center due to the high cardboard dust environment. Mobility wasn’t as much of a big deal as the protection was. But if needed, it could be wheeled anywhere it was needed.

Mobile workstations can take many forms, as previously mentioned. So, whether they’re on wheels or not is immaterial. They are able to be moved.

The need for these workstations without a doubt has diminished over the years. Heck, I can sit at home and connect to my client’s network and have access to anything from an HMI or programmable-logic-controller (PLC) point of view. Anything graphically required may be a chore. This was especially true when I had broadband Internet service. The speed was very limiting, but a small price to pay to live in paradise with my sweets.

Now I have fiber—60 Mbps up/down symmetrical. With the proliferation of wireless in the plant environment, one wonders how mobility of technology will be defined even in the next two years.

Sensors have built-in wireless connectivity, as do many control devices. Wireless safety is even a thing. Mobility means access to data anywhere you can get it. Rolling a workstation to a location will become a thing of the past at some point. This point will come quickly I’m sure, but until that time we will need good robust enclosures to allow workstations to remain mobile.

Even put an Apple AirTag on it to be sure you know where to find it.

About the Author

Jeremy Pollard | CET

Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Pollard has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 25 years.

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