Smartphones & Tablets as Remote HMIs

Smartphones and tablets as remote HMIs (human-machine interfaces) are becoming more and more of a reality. The real usage is more limited to remote monitoring devices, but still new technology is offering an interesting and useful way to track critical plant production information, for example. With new tools that rely on browser technology and limit the amount of development effort required, this is an approach that I think will continue to gain momentum.

A new network appliance from Opto 22 called Groov provides a new way to build, deploy, and view scalable operator interfaces for monitor and control systems using computers and mobile devices. The system is designed to securely allow authorized personnel to quickly deploy browser-based interfaces for automation monitoring and control.

"Small to mid-sized businesses have taken 'mobile HMI' and run with it," David Hill, marketing communications manager at Opto 22, told Design News in an email. "Customers knew exactly what they wanted to do with a mobile HMI, which they usually wanted on a smartphone, but the cost and complexity of getting there had been too great." For two water industry customers who connected to an HMI using remote desktop software, the existing solution was limited and cumbersome.

What's interesting is to see how midsized businesses are using this approach. One example is OEM machinery builder One-Step Automation in Niverville, Manitoba, which builds systems for grain handling and seed processing. Its goals included adjusting the motor speeds on variable frequency drives used in production, based on the quality of product being produced, and also to monitor product quality using a live camera feed. Currently all of these functions require an HMI in the facility. Using a browser-based interface, customers are now able to control VFD speed using adjustable buttons and slides. Live views from IP cameras provide a real-time view of product flow.

A second example is Schipper Eggs , a commercial egg producer in Holland, Mich. Its goal was instant remote access for operators to monitor feed mills at the facility and to start, stop, or modify how feed is mixed. The interface is simple and provides a very simple method for adjusting grinder or blower speed and changing the mix of feed ingredients. The system also provides an ability for remote access monitoring and troubleshooting of the mill's control system.

To provide security, the obvious concern with these types of systems, Opto 22 recommends using VPN access and separating an organization's control and computer networks. And beyond that, the key is careful assignment of user rights. The Groov appliance also implements SSL communications using software developed by the OpenSSL Project for use in the OpenSSL Toolkit.

While the examples above are obviously not extremely complex manufacturing systems, they do point out the way that connectivity solutions, even with limited capabilities, can offer very significant advances in productivity and flexibility. One thing that amazes me is that controlling the home thermostat, given the availability of wireless technology, has not already gone mainstream with the proliferation of smartphone technology. I know that solutions exist but even the high cost

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