1 June 2006

Wireless applications evolving

By Michael Saucier


Wireless applications aren't just for Starbucks warriors anymore. They have evolved in such a way that they are now ideal for supporting real-time business intelligence in the demanding process industries.

To understand the evolution, we need first to look at what constitutes business intelligence and what technological factors have been in play to bring wireless successfully to the process industries.

True business "intelligence" includes data from several sources as well as complete analysis and efficient distribution of that information to the right people. Whether you're performing economic dispatch, load planning and forecasting, condition-based maintenance, or just reviewing e-mail, it's not just the data itself that is important. The method in which you deliver the data is also critical.

The more specific, timely, and pertinent information is, the more valuable it is to the decision making process. A simple example of monitoring key operations efficiency metrics could provide the right people with information that a critical asset is about to fail. It's much easier to mitigate a problem before it happens than after it results in a failure.

Nerve center

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are the backbone of business intelligence, and they serve as financial and non-financial metrics used to reflect the critical success factors of an organization and to monitor how well the business is achieving its quantifiable objectives. They assess the present and past state of business and prescribe the course of action, and they help an organization measure progress toward its organizational goals.

Scorecards are collections of these KPIs used to represent accomplishing specific business goals, such as minimizing lost time from accidents, achieving compliance with government agencies, or managing large sets of personnel objectives across departments. The scorecards illustrate how various activities align with key aspects of the business objectives. With the scorecard methodology, hundreds of individual users can monitor their KPIs relating to a corporate objective, while the overall set of users operate from "one version of the truth" to prevent the common problem of "dueling spreadsheets." Previously, this monitoring was only available from desktops or laptops in relatively safe environments.

In the last year, however, several factors have converged to make wireless a compelling platform for the business intelligence and KPIs. These are:

Network: Broadband is now more widely available for wireless data transport.

Equipment: New equipment from router and wireless manufacturers is available that is more suitable for an unforgiving industrial environment.

Devices: More choices are available for ruggedized handheld devices that perform well in hazardous and/or demanding industrial environments.

Operating system: Microsoft Windows Mobile 5 delivers desktop-level stability in an operating system to a handheld device, and it is now available on more than a hundred device types.

In short, there is now better connectivity and users have the ability to safely deploy mission-critical line-of-business applications that weren't possible a year ago.

Growth incline

The evolution has been slow and incremental, where each development has built on the one prior to it. Manufacturers make routers and transceivers that are explosion-proof and can operate in a hazardous environment. This allows oil companies to use handheld devices in a dangerous environment such as a drilling rig or in an oil refinery where there is a chance of an explosion. As an engineer or operator in such a situation, you first want to make sure the electrical characteristics of that hardware match the environmental characteristics of your facility.

It's a fact control engineers and operators rarely sit at their desks these days. Asset-intensive industries that have a large number of distributed assets to manage and make daily/hourly decisions, and who have subject matter experts around the globe, are now exploring wireless.

About the Author

Michael Saucier is chief executive at Transpara, Inc., a software solution provider based in Pleasanton, Calif. His e-mail is michael@transpara.com.