Betamax and HMI’s

I’m old enough to remember the war between VHS and Betamax. If you don’t remember, these were the first two tape formats for home video recording. Betamax was the Sony standard, while VHS was the standard from JVC. Eventually JVC won the war, even though Betamax was clearly the superior technology. JVC did a really smart thing. They licensed their technology to any and every manufacturer they could find. Those manufacturers all started putting out nearly identical machines that competed with each other. Price became the distinguishing factor, and the manufacturers outdid each other to see who could sell for the lowest price.

Meanwhile, Sony had its very high quality, superior technology Betamax units. The people who bought them bragged about having better quality machines, implying that they were somehow smarter and more prescient than the rest of us. But in the end, we had the last laugh: Sony couldn’t compete with all the low cost VHS manufacturers and Beta died a slow death. Eventually, those arrogant Betamax users had to go out and buy a VHS machine. (Of course, DVR technology then killed VHS.)

We have a similar contest going on that is going to have some impact on the Industrial Automation industry. Since smart phones were introduced, there have been people who saw the smartphone as a “personal HMI.” The idea is that instead of walking up to one of those Rockwell PanelView screens on the side of the machine, you simply pull out your smart phone and look at the data you’re interested in.

There have always been issues with this. One way to do this is to use your cellular provider to access your manufacturing network. That’s not an option that every management team has readily accepted given the security issues with opening up their manufacturing networks to cellular access. People are doing this, but it’s awkward and requires some significant thinking and planning to pull off securely, and that’s what matters most.

Other management teams have just said NO – you can’t use your smartphone to access machine data. I think that’s shortsighted. The new engineers we’re now getting in the automation industry think of their smartphone as their sixth sense. It’s integral to them. As they grow and mature, you can bet that they’ll be pushing for more access.

Well, there is another way to access machine data from a smartphone – or should I say two ways. I am talking about the contest between NFC (Near Field Communications) and Bluetooth LE. With these technologies, the smartphone doesn’t use its cellular communications to access machine data; instead it accesses the machine data whenever it’s in range over one of these short-range technologies.

Near Field Communications (NFC) is a descendant of the RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology we’ve long used on the factory floor. RFID allows a reader to send radio waves to a passive electronic tag for identification, authentication and tracking. NFC is a similar technology that communicates either by a modulated electric field (not by radio – electromagnetic waves). One of the applications for NFC is to have tags in an area that trigger an application in the smartphone to wake up and take some action. In a store, you may have an application that is triggered when you walk by the Vodka telling you how good the Grey Goose is or something.

NFC has been around a long time, but it is now in heavy competition with Bluetooth LE which is sometimes called Bluetooth Low Energy or Bluetooth Smart. The Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group) created LE because traditional Bluetooth can be a power hog. Compared to Classic Bluetooth, Bluetooth Smart is intended to provide considerably reduced power consumption and cost while maintaining a similar communication range.

LE seems to be winning as mobile operating systems, including iOS, Android and Windows Phone as well as OS X, Linux, and Windows 8, now natively support Bluetooth Smart. The Bluetooth SIG boosts that more than 90 percent of Bluetooth-enabled smartphones will support Bluetooth Smart by 2018.
If that happens, we may see a lot of smartphone applications that access machine data over LE in the near future.


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