New mobile devices, apps and augmented reality are supporting the digitalization revolution, as well as keeping business going during the pandemic
Anyone who has visited or toured a production plant of the chemical process industries (CPI) knows that mobile phones not only have to be turned off, but are often even forbidden to be carried inside the production site. That’s because common mobile devices are safety hazards as potential ignition sources — even when turned off.
Nevertheless, with the advent of Industry 4.0 and the industrial internet of things (IIoT), smartphones, tablets and other hand-held devices are increasingly becoming a common sight within production plants. These “special” devices have been designed to be safe, as well as rugged, in order to be used in such industrial settings. And like the electronic gadgets widely used by consumers, new models, as well as the applications (apps) running on them, are regularly being introduced.
In addition, the use of augmented reality (AR) is becoming more important, especially for performing service work, while meeting new distancing restrictions due to the novel coronavirus. What follows is an overview of some products and services recently introduced.
“Today, tasks and challenges for companies in the CPI are more complex than ever before,” says Roolf Wessels, managing director at ECOM Instruments GmbH (Assamstadt, Germany; www.ecom-ex.com) — a brand of Pepperl+Fuchs SE (Mannheim, Germany; www.pepperl-fuchs.com). “That is why there is growing demand for digital and mobile hubs, which are embedded in a corporate IT [information technology] infrastructure and part of a holistic solution comprising hardware and applications for data use and increased effectiveness.”
“Today, it is all about agile mobile workplaces — a new work model that requires access to all relevant information and the ability to access and share data while working from home, but above all, in production and on the factory floor,” continues Wessels. “To meet this demand and support our customers, we are continuously developing our portfolio of end devices and peripherals, as well as digital products and services,” he says.
ECOM’s devices, which have been specially developed for rough industrial conditions in potentially hazardous areas of ATEX zones 1/21 and Div. 1, such as chemical plants, petroleum refineries or oil platforms, range from Android and Windows tablets to the company’s own smartphone series.
Just last month, ECOM introduced Tab-Ex Pro (Figure 1). “With its 10.1-inch screen, the Android tablet is particularly suitable for applications that require a large display,” says Wessels. “With the DeX feature, users can switch from field use to full desktop use in the office with a flick of their wrist. Despite its robustness and display size, the tablet is still light and handy.”
ECOM offers a range of end devices complemented by universally applicable peripherals that create maximum user benefit. Devices such as the Smart-Ex Watch 01, the Cube 800 (the first portable and explosion-proof infrared and HD video camera for zone 1/21 and Div. 1), scanners or headsets, provide further user convenience, says Wessels.
Earlier this year, Juniper Systems, Inc. (Logan, Utah; www.junipersys.com) released the Mesa 3 Rugged Tablet. “The Mesa 3 running Android operating system is not only a great Android tablet, but it is also one of the most rugged Android tablets in the world,” says Jeff Delatore, Mesa product manager. “The Mesa 3 running Android joins the Mesa 3 running Windows 10 and offers customers a greater selection of devices to choose from.”
The Mesa 3 running Android comes in with an IP68 rating and meets MIL-STD-810G test procedures. These ratings and testing mean the Mesa 3 running Android is waterproof, dustproof and shockproof.
Meanwhile, i.safe Mobile GmbH (Lauda-Koenigshofen, Germany; www.isafe-mobile.com) has more than 10 years of experience in the development of equipment for use in explosion-hazard areas. All i.safe Mobile products are certified for safe use in hazardous areas (including ATEX, IECEx, CSA, EAC) and are suitable for robust use in industry settings and outdoors.
In January, Softing Industrial Automation GmbH (Haar, Germany), together with i.safe Mobile and ProComSol Ltd. (Lakewood, Ohio), introduced a solution for setting the parameters and configuring HART field devices in Android applications, also in hazardous areas. The bundle is available from i.safe Mobile. “The mobiLink interface, in combination with our IS930.1 tablet and IS530.1 smartphone and ProComSol’s DD-based apps is a powerful offering for our customers,” says Martin Haaf, i.safe Mobile CEO.
AR for remote servicing
The augmented- and virtual-reality market is projected to grow 40% annually from 2017 through 2025, according to multiple research reports. Much of this spending will come from manufacturers around the globe using AR technology to help upskill their workforce for digitalized operations, according to Emerson Automation Solutions (Austin, Tex.; www.emerson.com).
“We also believe that the development of augmented reality applications for the industrial sector continues to advance,” says ECOM’s Wessels. “The first companies are already using well-functioning applications, while others are at the beginning of promising projects. Our Tab-Ex series, as well as our smartphones, have been designed to be perfectly suited for displaying and interacting with interactive, web-based and AR content quickly and seamlessly in hazardous areas,” he says. “The need is there and will continue to grow. Our devices are prepared for it.”
Meanwhile, Endress+Hauser AG (E+H; Reinach, Switzerland; www.endress.com) released its Visual Support service application in June, ahead of schedule during the coronavirus crisis. In the acute phase of the pandemic, users were able to take advantage of the remote audiovisual support free of charge.
The use of this technology for remote support enables audio-visual support for diagnosis and troubleshooting, commissioning and regular maintenance of field devices. With the help of live video transmission and screen casting, E+H’s technical support team can work almost as if they were on site, helping customers in a reliable and flexible manner with their service tasks via remote access.
Also in June, Emerson introduced augmented reality (AR) technology to its Plantweb Optics asset-performance platform, delivering enhanced access to realtime diagnostics and analytics, as well as live remote assistance, to industrial plant workers responsible for maintaining and optimizing plant equipment. With AR technology integrated into Plantweb Optics, companies can improve productivity, collaboration and operational performance, without being limited by shortages of skilled workers or travel restrictions, says the company.
Plantweb Optics leverages artificial intelligence, machine learning analytics and data contextualization to provide realtime visibility into plant reliability and operational performance. Unlike standalone AR solutions that require custom engineering, AR is integrated into Plantweb Optics, providing immediate access to a wealth of data and translating into easier, less costly implementation and a faster return on investment. For use by manufacturers in the life sciences, food-and-beverage, chemicals, metals, mining, water, pulp-and-paper and energy industries, Plantweb Optics is part of Emerson’s Plantweb digital ecosystem of technologies, software and services.
AR for Plantweb Optics transforms the way field technicians accomplish complex tasks through enhanced situational awareness, live remote assistance and analytics delivered in context of the plant. As a field technician walks within an industrial plant with a mobile device, Plantweb Optics uses spatial computing technology to map assets and provide technicians with critical maintenance information relevant to their location. Plantweb Optics overlays realtime analytics, equipment health status and technical support documentation on their field of view, so technicians can safely resolve issues sooner.
In July, petrochemical giant Sibur (Moscow, Russia; www.sibur.ru) launched a universal AR service for remotely maintaining and repairing industrial equipment (Figure 2). Based on a unique IT platform of its own design, the service will replace face-to-face visits of service company specialists and experts with video consultations using AR glasses. This project was implemented in partnership with G-Core Labs (Luxembourg; www.gcorelabs.com), an international provider of cloud and edge solutions.
Sibur specialists first tested remote-servicing technology with the help of AR glasses in 2018 by using several solutions available on the market. The company’s production facilities in the city of Tobolsk became the testing grounds.
“Our AR service is easy to use and includes two large key components: RealWear and Epson augmented reality glasses with pre-installed Android applications developed in collaboration with G-Core Labs and integrated with Sibur’s own mobile-media platform,” says Alexander Leus, head of Sibur Industry 4.0 practice. “This platform allows you to fully digitize the entire maintenance and repair process by organizing HD [high definition] broadcasts in WebRTC format and creating a full-fledged communication platform for effective on-site specialist interactions with a remote expert. Everything is voice-controlled, freeing the hands of the person to work with the equipment,” says Leus.
“With the help of a virtual pointer displayed on the glasses’ micro-display, an employee of the equipment supplier company can direct the actions of the specialist, draw attention to certain elements, and indicate what to turn and where to monitor,” explains Dmitry Samoshkin, vice president of Products at G-Core Labs.
“One session of operational communication through our AR platform helps save several tens of thousands of dollars,” says Igor Klimov, member of the board, CEO of Sibur Tobolsk enterprises. “These savings result from the reduction in travel expenses, hourly billing instead of full-day billing for experts, and the timely resumption of work,” he says.
During the pandemic and quarantine restrictions, the demand for the tool grew significantly. “External experts are not always available for operational business trips to our sites,” explains says Timur Zalimov, chief expert for the Director Service of Technology Development at ZapSibNeftekhim. “Business trips of foreign representatives can take from one week to a whole month. Due to quarantine restrictions and shifted working hours, their presence at the enterprise was completely impossible. And right at that time, turnaround maintenance that usually require the presence of vendors were taking place. With the help of the Remote AR Expert, we contacted three global suppliers of cooling towers and examined a pyrolysis plant’s huge cooling tower with a capacity of 72,500 m3/h. We showed our colleagues the whole picture online,” he says.
Lone-worker safety. Introduced in July, the eSENTINEL app from ECOM was developed to significantly increase, with little effort, the safety for employees. The app provides users with basic security measures for day-to-day use, especially for lone workers or people working in high-risk situations.
With ECOM terminal devices, such as Smart-Ex 02 or Tab-Ex 02, the app is linked to the red emergency button on the hardware. With third-party hardware, a red emergency button is shown on the display. This enables the worker to quickly send an alarm notification in a dangerous situation.
A timer function can be set for environments where workers are only allowed to stay for a limited period of time for safety reasons, such as the presence of extreme temperatures or toxic gases. Even without a time limit, the app automatically processes various data provided by special sensors on the hardware. If an anomaly is detected by one of them, the app also triggers a pre-alarm. For example, this happens if the gyroscope detects a change of the tilt angle to a predefined position. A pre-alarm is also triggered if the terminal device does not register any movement for a certain period, which could mean that the worker is immobilized or unconscious. If the worker does not react to the alarm, the app automatically informs a pre-defined contact by e-mail, SMS, or call.
If an alarm notification is triggered, the app automatically determines the device’s location via GPS and submits it to the contact points, which must be alarmed. The location is transmitted either by e-mail or SMS.
Chemical safety. A new open source computer program called ChemStor developed by engineers at the University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu), can prevent dangerous situations by telling users if it is unsafe to mix certain chemicals. Published earlier this year in the Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling, their program adapts a computer science strategy to allocate resources for efficient processor use, known as graph coloring register allocation. In this system, resources are colored and organized according to a rule that states adjacent data points, or nodes, sharing an edge cannot also share a color.
ChemStor draws from a library of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Washington, D.C.; www.epa.gov) of 9,800 chemicals, organized into reactivity groups. It then builds a chemical interaction graph based on the reactivity groups and computes the smallest number of colors that will color the graph such that no two chemicals that can interact also share the same color.
ChemStor next assigns all the chemicals of each color to a storage or waste container after confirming there is enough space. Chemicals with the same color can be stored together without a dangerous reaction, while chemicals with different colors cannot.
If two or more chemicals can be combined in the same cabinet or added to a waste container without forming possibly dangerous combinations of chemicals, ChemStor determines the configuration is safe. ChemStor also indicates if no safe storage or disposal configuration can be found.
Updates are forthcoming to make ChemStor more user-friendly, including a smartphone app utilizing the camera to gather information about chemicals and storage options.