01 February 2004
Handheld devices in the world of control
By Brian McGaulley
Historically, the control system world seems to lag behind that of information technology (IT).
One good reason is control system engineers allow cutting-edge technology to be beta tested by others before they adopt solutions. One proven area that has great potential in industrial applications is the use of handheld devices for automation.
It appears to be a concept whose time has come.
While personal information management (PIM) has proven to be the killer application for more than 25 million users worldwide, handheld devices must evolve with new segments, applications, and technologies if the market is to remain relevant, reports International Data Corp. in its Worldwide Handheld Qview.
Handheld devices and their smaller counterparts, personal digital assistants, do not typically include telephony, but they may include wireless capabilities that enable Internet access and text communication. These devices feature evolved operating systems or application environments, such as Palm OS, Pocket PC, Windows CE, Handheld PC 2000, Linux, or proprietary solutions, and have the ability to download and run applications and store user data beyond their required PIM capabilities.
One of the new applications for handheld devices is in control and information systems. The integration of open programming platforms, such as Visual Basic and OPC, into traditional control system software has created expansion opportunities for automation.
These opportunities are closer than ever, in large part due to the introduction of key tools like the Windows CE operating system. These advances allow handheld devices to interface with many supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) packages and even directly to programmable logic controllers (PLCs) via wireless networking.
Windows CE .NET, the successor to Windows CE 3.0, combines an advanced real-time embedded operating system with tools for rapidly creating the next generation of smart, connected, and small-footprint devices.
Custom programming may or may not be necessary, depending on the application requirements, because many control systems have software "hooks" designed specifically for external devices.
Using new technology such as this can offer numerous advantages such as innovative, flexible, and user-friendly tools, which in turn can lead to increased productivity and higher return on investment.
This marriage of handheld computers, wireless networking, and software development tools opens up a vast array of new ways to make control systems more usable, friendly, and valuable for factory automation systems.
Handheld technology came to the forefront in a recent project involving a sales showroom lighting control system. A Windows CE–based handheld device was fitted with a wireless network interface and loaded with a custom application to transmit preconfigured lighting patterns, via an OPC server program, to a local area PLC. The programming allowed the user to carry the device between different areas, thereby controlling several PLCs.
This simple yet elegant solution replaced a complicated stationary control system. As a result, sales personnel can now instantly demonstrate a variety of patterns with more time and freedom to interact with their clients.
Other applications of handheld devices in the control system world include equipment calibration, data acquisition and monitoring, laboratory data collection, and inventory control. Handhelds can save time and money by utilizing simple controls to provide employees constant access to critical information. The ability to interface with existing computer networks makes many security options available, as IT personnel can control handheld access to sensitive information with the same network security tools that they currently use.
Handheld devices represent a significant advance in computer technology, and it is undeniable that their mobility makes life easier. Many models currently on the market have the capacity to run frequently used desktop and laptop programs. Their compact size and relative affordability make them an attractive alternative to laptops. It seems that every month there are new innovations in these products that allow for even greater computing and storage capability, which, as a result, make them that much more competitive. IT
Brian McGaulley is a project manger at Advanced Automation Associates, Inc. (A3), an Exton, Pa.–based control and information system integrator that specializes in real-time performance management systems for the process manufacturing industry. A3 is a founding member of Control and Information System Integrators Association (CSIA). McGaulley is also a member of ISA. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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