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Three System Integrators Show How Mobility Mitigates COVID-19

PostedThursday, September 17,2020 at 2:59 PM

Three System Integrators Show How Mobility Mitigates COVID-19
Photo by dhru on Unplash

By Jim Montague

Because they're often shoulder-to-shoulder with plant-floor personnel, system integrators have some definite views and advice on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting process applications and how mobile technologies can help.

McEnery Automation

"Tablet PCs have been available for a number of years, and are very practical because users can easily take them into their process settings. Some examples of these applications include classified areas, if they're properly protected, or simply providing the convenience of making control room-type adjustments on the plant floor where conventional operator terminals wouldn’t be practical," says Kevin McEnery, CEO of McEnery Automation, a CSIA-certified system integrator in St. Louis. "Logically, if operators are usually in a main control room, but need to allow social distancing due to the pandemic precautions, they can deploy tablet PCs or other remote connectivity technologies. This will allow them to provide the necessary physical distancing, while continuing to perform their jobs at full capacity."

McEnery reports that tablet PCs can be deployed at relatively low cost, but their use still needs to be justified. "The use of tablets or other remote connectivity technologies needs to address a specific use case, and COVID-19 is a specific use case," he says. "In the past, remote access to monitoring and control systems was more restrictive. As a result of COVID-19, though, we're seeing users, engineers and supervisors opening up to remote connectivity, usually via a VPN into a workstation. Before the pandemic, the potential risk of this outweighed the advantages in many cases. COVID-19 presents a newer, more significant risk, and that new risk and revised risk evaluation makes remote connectivity more compelling.”

Despite increasing acceptance of remote access, McEnery adds different clients have different rules for it. "Some allow remote connections from our machines, while others prefer that we use their preconfigured laptops to make a connection," he says. "These decisions have to be based on what the user is trying to accomplish with a remote link, and what technology is the most appropriate for accomplishing it."

ECS Solutions

"Tablet PCs, smart phones, drones, wearables, positioning software and other mobile solutions have been in a pseudo-dormant state," says John Parraga, process specialist with ECS Solutions, a CSIA-certified system integrator in Evansville, Ind. "The automation world is slowly bringing them into the design, operation and maintenance of systems. They can greatly improve many aspects of process applications, and paradigms are starting to shift in their favor due to COVID-19's newly created environments."

Perraga explains that staffs not being able to come together for meetings, startups and design reviews doesn't only affect the design and implementation of new systems, it also affects day-to-day operations. "Entire systems are being designed, commissioned and operated with remote personnel. If there's one positive thing COVID-19 has done, it's show us how capable we are at forming global, functional, virtual teams with existing technologies traditionally outside our paradigms," explains Perraga. "Even though there's no substitute for in-person meetings, the ease with which teams can come together enables greater remote productivity and perhaps overall productivity as well. These technologies and their acceptance short-circuited the process of sharing just-in-time information in a spontaneous manner.

"Mobile applications allow operators to remain in the field without coming to a traditional control room to understand what's going on in processing areas. Startup and commissioning can occur without team members traveling to the sites, and global teams can operate seamlessly from their home bases with full system visibility as if they were onsite."

Perraga adds that ECS has demonstrated that it can avoid distancing and using personal protective equipment (PPE) restrictions by avoiding being present, even though its team members are sitting virtually in the same room next to each other not wearing PPE. These efforts include sharing displays that let them interact remotely, and remote meetings that allow ecosystems of stakeholders to be virtually present.

"During one critical step, the corporate engineering group couldn't travel, and didn't have to travel from another country to understand a system scenario. They used video sharing technology that let them assess and make recommendations quickly," says Perraga. "We've had remote technologies available for years. What we've learned due to COVID-19 is these resources are very practical. The true challenge is making a paradigm change, not implementing these technologies. The biggest thing COVID-19 has done to these technologies is to demonstrate their potential value with a small paradigm shift."

Concept Systems

"Screen sharing and communicating has really changed. For instance, using Rockwell Automation’s ThinManager software allows varied content to be displayed anywhere in a plant with central management, as well as support where engineers can see the exact content and user experience," says Sam Cafferata, principal engineer with Concept Systems Inc., a CSIA-certified system integrator in Albany, Ore. "Tablets and phones are now using their cameras, and live conference calls are easier and more effective than face-to-face meetings. Screen and video sharing have never been more widely used and accepted."

Before helping with COVID-19, Cafferata reports mobile applications were heavily adopted in new deployments, are very common in plants with younger workforces, and where IT and controls personnel have merged and work together. "As time moves on, this will be necessary everywhere. Controls and IT are really one in the same," says Cafferata. "Mobile technologies helping with COVID-19 are communications and experience-sharing technologies that are changing how we work. It's very common to support a plant remotely. Why expose a manufacturing facility to an outsider?"

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

This article was originally published on the Control Global website.