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Isaac Maw


Are Smartphones the Building Blocks of Industry 4.0?

A brief cost analysis

Published: Monday, June 24, 2019 - 12:02

How often do you check your phone at work? Maybe you’re reading this article on it right now (Don’t worry; we won’t tell.). Smartphones were a revolution for workplace distractions, but they can also be tools for productivity.

I recently attended the IBM Watson IoT Exchange event in Orlando, Florida, the AI giant’s annual conference for its Watson solutions. It brings together users and developers of multiple IBM IoT products, including Maximo enterprise asset management.

As I attended the keynotes and workshops of the Maximo stream, I noticed a trend: Several of the featured monitoring, analytics, and asset management solutions required or recommended the use of a consumer electronic device, such as a smartphone, consumer tablet, or augmented reality headset.

A few of the users I spoke with at the event had reservations about using consumer electronics in an industrial environment. For example, over lunch, one engineer working for a large firm on a military base explained to me that no matter what security features are implemented, there’s just no way he’d ever be able to bring smartphones onto the base to give to maintenance technicians. In a demo of an acoustic monitoring solution, several participants asked about hardware options—such as industrial microphones and ruggedized industrial PCs—citing concerns about the durability of consumer smartphones in the factory environment.

Given the risks and the manufacturers’ tendency to be wary of new tech, why are ideas like bring-your-own-device strategies seemingly gaining traction in industrial enterprises? And why are industrial software solution providers like IBM, PTC, and others recommending the use of these devices?

IBM Watson IoT on the factory floor

Engineering.com spoke with Stephan Biller, vice president and chief innovation officer at IBM Watson IoT, about using consumer devices in industrial environments. He highlighted the price-performance trade-off of consumer vs. industrial devices.

Stephan Biller, vice president and chief innovation officer at IBM Watson IoT

“Many of our customers want iOS devices or Android devices because they have them already,” says Biller. “These devices are getting better by the day [because] the consumer technology train goes much faster than the industrial technology train. So, you’re getting much better capabilities from a consumer device.”

One of the main concerns with using consumer devices in a factory comes from their fragility. However, Biller calls this a basic cost-benefit decision: “Maybe five years ago people would say, ‘No way I’m going to have an iPad in my factory, it’s going to break.’ Okay. So, you’re going to buy an industrial device that’s 10 times as expensive so that it won’t break? How many iPads are breaking? One out of a hundred?”

Counterpoint: Industrial sensors should be used for industrial sensing

Douglas Andrea is CEO of Andrea Electronics, which specializes in digital array microphones and other industrial sensors. These represent the alternatives to strapping an iPhone to a piece of equipment. Andrea also attended the IoT Exchange conference and was quick to hand a business card to any engineer with doubts about the utility of consumer tech in the factory.

“The IoT market is emerging quickly now, and it’s becoming a reality for large manufacturers or utility plants to consider monitoring their equipment with IoT sensor devices,” Andrea says. “But there are not a lot of custom sensors out there for industrial IoT. So, that’s why [companies like IBM] are using these devices for proof of concept. They’re using smartphones and tablets as makeshift sensors. However, this is obviously very expensive, and companies don’t want workers to walk away with these phones because the workers think that they can just take them home and use them for their personal use.”

According to Andrea, consumer devices are useful for these short-lived, proof-of-concept tests or trials, but they aren’t the ideal long-term monitoring solution.

“Industrial customers want a low-cost solution that gets the data from the machine to the cloud and the dashboard to monitor these things,” he says. “They need quite a few sensors; hundreds, maybe, depending on the size of the operation, or thousands. And if you want to put numerous sensors on one machine, it’s just cost prohibitive to make them go out and buy consumer cell phones and strap them on. And it’s also the form factor—it’s clumsy. It’s not designed for that. So, new forms of low-cost sensors that have the proper form factor for attaching to machinery need to be developed now as the segment emerges.”

Of course, you can do more with a smartphone than collect data. Besides sensor or equipment monitoring solutions, smartphones and tablets also have communication and information access applications that could aid maintenance workers in the field. “That’s different,” says Andrea. “I think these field applications make a lot of sense. They can have a tablet device for larger screen. They can also use tools such as augmented reality headsets. So, I think that’s going to also develop into more specialized equipment.

“I think right now the smartphone and tablet make sense and work pretty well for a maintenance person using tools such as AI feedback, virtual manuals, and instructions to service equipment, getting the most updated information in real time,” he adds. “However, I think you’ll see these devices being sold in the future in high-end and ruggedized versions.”

Smartphones in factories

Consumer smartphones are communication devices that include several built-in sensors. When an application requires a communication device, they’re great. When the application requires a sensor device, the smartphone is being used for something other than what it was originally designed for, which may not be optimal.

Stephan Biller’s cost-benefit argument is a good one: Consumer devices are simple and easy to use, and they may be the best option for some customers. For users looking for a more specialized sensor device, industrial microphones are an option.

“It’s exciting for Andrea as a microphone company and an OEM supplier to see acoustic monitoring as part of the sensors for IoT applications,” says Andrea. “Acoustic analytics is becoming a potential dominant feedback source for AI tools and for speech applications. So, I’m very excited about the growth of applications for microphones in industry.”

First published May 28, 2019, on the engineering.com blog.


About The Author

Isaac Maw’s picture

Isaac Maw

Isaac Maw is Associate Editor of Manufacturing at ENGINEERING.com. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication. He is a passionate writer and a skilled online researcher and marketer.