BYOD on the Factory Floor: A Boon or Trouble?

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Manufacturing workplaces are confronting the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend that enterprises in general have seen in recent years.

Trying to take advantage of the convenience of mobile phones and tablet computers, factory-floor personnel are seeking ways to employ their personal devices for productivity gains at work. Some employers have embraced the trend and developed ways to support this kind of activity. Others, concerned over issues such as security, have clamped down, placing restrictions on BYOD.

In a report on the BYOD trend among U.S. companies overall by research firm Frost & Sullivan, based in Mountain View, Calif., analyst Vikrant Gandhi wrote that “providing corporate access to a broad base of employees on their personal devices can be more economical for a company, as the employee (and not the organization) generally pays for the device and data plan.” Frost & Sullivan sees personal devices enabling the shift to a “virtual enterprise framework” with consequent “increased efficiencies and operational advantages.”

Writing in a recent white paper focused on BYOD in manufacturing for Englewood, Colo.-based IHS, a research and advisory firm, Mark Watson said “rising numbers of manufacturing workers are utilizing their own smartphones and tablets to monitor and control industrial equipment.” Watson, associate director for IHS’s industrial automation group, wrote that personal devices used in this way “can allow users to manage equipment remotely, observing processes while employees are on the move or working in another part of the factory.”

While the trend is currently driven by individuals, Watson believes that “companies in the future are likely to accommodate this phenomenon by provisioning employees with ruggedized devices tailored to the rigors of the factory floor.”

IHS predicts that BYOD in manufacturing, enabled by “the increasing networking of industrial automation equipment,” and some of which is employing standard wireless technologies accessible on consumer mobile devices, rather than the industry-adopted WirelessHART and ISA 100.11a, will rise rapidly in coming years.

In an interview with Tech Trends Journal, Watson said “discrete and process manufacturing companies are renowned for being conservative.” For that reason, the BYOD trend might not be as far advanced as in other kinds of firms. “New technologies are often slow to be adopted.”

Watson has seen this happen before with wireless communications. “Often we see wireless pockets of networking that are used alongside a wired backbone.” Wireless technologies will increase on the factory floor, he believes, but not quickly. “Wireless is good for remote or inaccessible applications but will not replace Ethernet or fieldbus for critical applications anytime soon.”

Industrial automation vendors are now offering Apple and Android apps for such purposes as visualization of manufacturing processes. “Companies such as Advantech, Siemens, Rockwell, and Schneider all offer software apps so that machine operators can use consumer phones or tablets to visualize data remotely,” Watson said. The IHS report cites particularly Temecula, Calif.-based Opto 22, which offers Groov, a hardware and software package for building browser-based apps and operator interfaces for automation control from mobile devices and computers.

The IHS report suggests that mobile devices could be used for process control, going beyond just monitoring and visualization. However, Watson told Tech Trends Journal that he thinks the “vast majority” of uses for mobile devices “would be for easier and more flexible monitoring of systems [by means of] visualization.”

“If you look to the larger HMI (human-machine interface) vendors, most are now offering apps that can be used on consumer Apple or Android devices to monitor machinery from anywhere in the factory or remotely,” he said. “I don’t think very much would be used for control of machinery or processes.”

However, there are still great benefits to be had from convenient remote process monitoring and troubleshooting. “This extends great flexibility to operators and can also be very useful for service and support, in that engineers do not always have to travel to review problems,” Watson noted.

video presentation from HMI vendor Pro-face provides an example of how that might work. In the video, an on-site engineer spots a problem with a tank at his plant and collaborates remotely with a systems integrator to analyze and correct the problem (while she sits sipping wine in an evening dress at an Indonesian hotel). The engineer uses a tablet to access dashboard-style readouts of machine processes and share crucial information with the faraway consultant.

Company decision-makers and IT managers have various concerns about the growing BYOD trend. Watson told us that “security will be top of the list for most, if not all, companies.”

How can mobile devices be managed “to ensure that operators benefit from mobility and easier access to production data while at the same time ensuring that this is not shared externally?”

Personal mobile phones and tablets might not be as secure as company-issued equipment, exposing manufacturers to risks around protecting confidential data and defending malware attacks. Wireless networks are also an increasing feature of industrial environments, raising related security issues. The IHS paper predicts that wireless connections in factories will rise from 2.1 million in 2012 to 3.4 million in 2017.

“Industry is becoming a target,” said Watson, “because it is well behind the curve in terms of security.”

Some manufacturing operations are taking cyber-security measures such as using a "honeypot," a site that masquerades as a manufacturing network but is an isolated system designed to divert and gather information about hackers. 

In Frost & Sullivan’s report, Gandhi did acknowledge that before the efficiencies of a virtual enterprise framework can be had, managing a diversity of operating systems and form factors, controlling costs, and complying with industry regulations must be resolved.

These complexities point to the need for rethinking corporate technologies, policies, and processes, taking into account greater diversity of corporate- and employee-owned mobile devices. At the same time, Gandhi warned, becoming overly restrictive with BYOD could backfire and lead to “employee dissatisfaction and reduced productivity.”    

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