Most early enterprise mobility apps were first introduced on the iPad. This is because 5 years ago, when the mobility space was being born, it was the first platform capable of running a useful mobile app on the plant floor. To those of us developing applications for the industrial automation space, the iPad2, with its high resolution camera, accelerometer and newly branded App Store, was a very compelling device.
While iOS devices are still very popular, mobile tablet offerings have certainly improved over the past few years. Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 OS is PC and tablet friendly, and the Surface Pro 2 and 3 tablets offer very comparable performance and features of both tablets and PCs. Taking Microsoft’s ads seriously, I actually traded my laptop in for the Surface Pro 3, and I haven’t looked back; I run apps like VMWare Workstation, Microsoft Visual Studio, and Camtasia with great performance, and it boots in about 20 seconds. More vendors are producing industrial tablets which run Windows 8.1.
Now that we have a choice, the advantages to using Windows tablets on the plant floor are greatly magnified, and we are seeing a shift in preference on the plant floor. Here are 5 reasons why:
1. Compatibility with existing plant floor software. Your plant is already using Windows for all of its plant floor software. Most off the shelf SCADA and HMI software run on Windows, as do most ERP, MES, PLM, Preventative Maintenance Systems, and home grown systems. Non-Windows platforms often have problems interfacing with these systems, and will require custom or third-party interfaces. Microsoft Tablets will interface directly with most of your plant software systems right out of the box.
2. Compatibility with plant floor hardware. Microsoft tablet PCs come with USB ports and other interfaces, allowing users to easily attach RFID Readers, hand held barcode scanners, USB based Serial drivers, and other such devices that are often found on the plant floor.
3. Harsh Environments. Some manufacturers, such as Entegratec, make industrially hardened tablets which meet Intrinsically Safe standards for harsh or explosive environments, such as UL’s Class 1 Division 2 rating. We like Entegra’s CrossFire Pro tablet which is rated for these environments and has the great feature of being completely modular: the CPU, camera, memory and USB ports can be upgraded or swapped out. To the end customer, being able to upgrade memory or the CPU in their tablets means they won’t soon become obsolete as newer, more powerful models come out. The CrossFire Pro also has programmable buttons on the front bezel which can be programmed for special functions, like taking snapshots or launching a specific app. Most other (if any) shelf brand tablets don’t currently offer industrially hardened products, and none of the off-the-shelf enclosures we found meet intrinsically safe standards.
4. One device, two functions. Tablet PCs running Windows 8.1 serve both functions well, so plant floor users only need a single device. They can use a docking station when they are at their desk, giving them the same comfort and experience as a desktop or laptop. On the plant floor, they can use it as a tablet, giving them the convenience and portability they need for their plant floor mobility applications. Yes, these devices cost more than traditional tablets, but since they function as both a PC and a tablet, the end user gets more value out of the device, and out of their existing plant software systems as well.
5. Future Proof. Microsoft’s Windows 10 will be coming out soon, and is being hailed as the last version of Windows. Windows 10 is built for both PC and mobile platforms, and most plant systems will be migrating to this eventually. Tablets running Windows 8.1 will support an upgrade to Windows 10, which means they will continue to work as your plant software is being upgraded.
For plants already using non-Microsoft based tablets, there is no compelling reason to make the switch now; however we are seeing a trend where many customers are switching to Windows OS mobile platforms for their mobility programs as new plants and facilities come online. Also, more companies are considering replacing failed or obsolete devices with ones supporting the Windows Mobile OS in order to take advantage of the benefits described above.
Bob Meads has a diverse technology-based background which began when he joined the Navy in 1984. As an Electronics Technician serving aboard submarines and various surface vessels, Bob worked on inertial navigation systems, RADAR, HF communication systems and cryptographic equipment. Bob’s Navy career was highlighted with several performance awards, culminating in being named Surface Forces Atlantic Fleet Sailor of The Year for 1990. After the Navy, Bob became a production engineer at NEC Technologies in McDonough, GA, a manufacturer of computer monitors and external CD-ROM drives. Bob served as group leader for 12 electronic technicians and became involved in defining manufacturing processes and production testing for the MultiSync series computer monitors and external CD-ROM drives.
Bob left NEC in 1994 to pursue a newfound interest in developing software, receiving a BS in Computer Science and Electronic Technology from Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, GA. He then took a position at Siemens Energy and Automation in Alpharetta, GA working with new Windows-based Human Machine Interface (HMI) development software called WinCC. When the position moved to New Jersey, Bob started his first company, iQuest, in 1998, as an HMI and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) Consultant and automation integrator. Today, Bob still runs iQuest, and has started a new company, iQagent, Inc., a mobile software company whose goal is to provide applications and software for the plant floor. Their flagship product, iQagent, is a “practical Augmented Reality“ product that helps companies reduce costs by providing instant access to resources based on equipment it recognizes in manufacturing and process environments.