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  • By Steve Hechtman
  • Executive Corner

By Steve Hechtman

Mobile computing has now surpassed desktop computing in the consumer space, but as we all know, operational technology (OT) trends tend to follow information technology trends by up to 10 years. However, the OT space is now seeing a proliferation of mobile devices and applications that leverage them well, affording the space a tremendous opportunity (with a few caveats).

When considering mobile computing, there are three important design concepts to understand: mobile responsiveness, mobile adaptiveness, and mobile first.

"Mobile responsiveness" refers to the design of applications that are suitable for mobile devices. This is done by using a dynamic layout that automatically renders information to any screen size, resolution, or orientation in a highly usable manner. For example, text and images can change from a three-column display to a single-column display, with unnecessary images hidden so they do not interfere or compete with more important information on a mobile device's smaller screen.

One can test any website for mobile responsiveness by using a desktop browser and resizing it to see how the text and images flow. Mobile-responsive design reflows and adapts to almost any size, while still presenting the most important information in a usable form.

"Mobile-adaptive" design is similar to mobile-responsive design, except that it uses different layouts, each suited to a particular range of screen sizes and resolutions. Such a design detects the type of device being used and presents the appropriate layout for that device. For example, if a PC is detected, one layout is used, and if a mobile device is detected, another one is used that can better utilize the available screen space.

Application design in the past focused on optimal desktop presentation, and mobile design was an afterthought. "Mobile-first" design reverses this and makes mobile a first-class experience, with desktop design a secondary consideration. In most cases, within the context of OT, both desktop and mobile need to be first-class experiences, so blending the mobile-adaptive and mobile-responsive approaches is usually the better choice. Another term for this is "mobile-also." This widens the skill set and understanding required of the control system integrator, whose user interface design concepts need to evolve to fully leverage mobile-device capabilities-all without abandoning prior workstation design concepts, which are still fully applicable.

Speaking of fully leveraging mobile-device capabilities, the real win comes by leveraging the wide range of sensors available in mobile devices. Today's mobile devices are packed with nearly 14 sensors that produce raw data for motion, location, and other things concerning the environment. This could include using the camera for reading barcodes or using Bluetooth LE (low energy) for determining the general location inside a plant, and of course there is also GPS. How useful would it be to record the location of events or navigate to applicable screens or data based on location? Or how about using a mobile device's accelerometer for vibration analysis-a way of predicting rotating equipment failure-with nothing more than your mobile phone?

Being out of range of cellular towers or Wi-Fi should not be a limitation, because applications can be built to work in untethered mode. In this case, the recording of mobile sensor data or manual data entry is done offline, with the data being automatically uploaded or synchronized when signals are back in range.

But there's more! Today most mobile (and many desktop) applications can run as JavaScript inside the browser. In essence, the browser has become the operating system. This is good news, because nearly every device has a browser. This means applications can be written once and can run on any device or operating system.

This can reduce plant downtime immensely. Whereas the failure of a typical plant floor human-machine interface (HMI) or touchscreen PC can take down a line for hours or more, browser-based applications can be restored using any device with a browser in a minute. One could even imagine using a tablet device in a ruggedized protective housing in lieu of proprietary HMI screens.

We are just now starting to see viable mobility in action on plant floors and in the field. This opens whole new vistas of what is possible and can make plant operations far more efficient.

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About The Authors

Steve Hechtman is the president, CEO, and founder of Inductive Automation. Before starting the company in 2003, Hechtman had 25 years of experience as a control system integrator, including at Calmetrics Company, which he cofounded in 1988. After years of frustration with expensive and impractical industrial software, he created a better solution. He formed Inductive Automation, which has brought up-to-date technologies to the controls business with web-based, database-centric products, and sensible licensing models.