The mother of all cases is finally here
By Geoffrey Cann
I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.
As far back as 2004, I explored the possibility of deploying cellular phones within an oil refining complex. The idea of persistent and safe communications with supervisors and lead hands by phone or text message during the work day was intuitively attractive, and we imagineered many a positive use case. This was in the era of the BlackBerry mobile phone, long before Apple created the smart phone category.
However, we ultimately abandoned the concept for three reasons:
- The low-cost consumer-type handsets from companies like Blackberry, Nokia, and Motorola were not intrinsically safe — refining environments, like many oil and gas facilities, can experience the occasional rogue emission of a flammable hydrocarbon, and a handset that could ignite the hydrocarbons with a rogue spark was simply too risky.
- The intrinsically safe handsets that were available were bulky, heavy, costly, hard to use, and provided very limited capability. They couldn’t handle being off line, and there was little software available. At best they automated one or two useful functions, which failed to outweigh their limitations.
- The facilities environment wasn’t friendly to cellular communications. The site was (and still is) large, the equipment was equally massive, with lots of steel, and the setting generated plenty of electrical interference.
And so we moved on, letting this good idea await better conditions.
A Decade Passes
A decade later in 2014, I was reminded how far consumer technology has progressed when I was contacted by a young Australian field engineer with a creative mobile worker solution.
He had been tasked with building up an inventory of field assets installed in a customer’s gas fields. Rather than using the typical paper diagrams and clipboards for such a campaign, he purchased an Apple mini tablet and downloaded a free app from iTunes that normally would be used to build a home inventory for insurance purposes. He replaced the list of home assets (such as stereo system and microwave oven) with gas assets (such as wellhead, flare, and separator). With a couple of even more junior colleagues, he then set out to build the inventory.
The team photographed the assets, capturing location data in the process, built the inventory, and completed their work in a fraction of the time normally allocated to such a task. The data captured was so accurate and complete that there was no data-entry work for the home-office team.
Normally a senior engineer was required to review the work, but even that task was deemed unnecessary.
The young engineer’s solution had cost all of $500. He had taken a risk by using a consumer-grade tablet, but the gas assets were all outdoors, and the risk of a conflagration minimal. He also took a lot of grief back in the home office for disrupting the normal work routine, and was told to cease and desist his innovation.
Another Decade Passes
Fast forward yet another decade, to 2023, and here’s where things stand:
- Today’s 25 year old worker, basically anyone coming out of school and entering the work force today, has had access to a smart phone and all the apps and capabilities built into these marvels, for their entire life. They have known no other reality.
- Phone handsets have become ever more capable, smaller, with longer battery life, more network connections, and packed with clever sensors such as cameras and bio monitors. For many, the smart phone, though costly, is something to be happily upgraded every 24-36 months.
- Smart phones are still not intrinsically safe, and handset makers show no sign or interest in moving in this direction. The costs to build intrinsically safe devices are high, the market is small, and handset makers can keep the detailed specifications for their devices under wraps.
- The software ecosystem behind smart phones and tablets has blossomed into its own trillion dollar industry. As an example, Final Cut Pro, a video editing product that is used by Hollywood types to piece together feature films is now available on a tablet for just a few dollars.
- Our consumer world has been completely transformed in virtually every possible aspect, from ordering take out, to arranging a taxi, to researching anything, to finding a mate, all enabled by cloud computing, clever consumer software, open software platforms, and extensive eco systems.
- That transformation is now entering a dramatically new phase with the rise of truly useful and low cost artificial intelligence, omnipresent intelligent machines, and ubiquitous high bandwidth telecom networks.
- Commercial software solutions that are primarily used in non-hazardous environments (basically, every app on a smart phone) have all been furiously evolving for a decade to work on all of those smart devices.
Oil and gas operational workplaces in comparison, are still very much vintage 1980’s. Handsets are absolutely not permitted on site. Workers may have radios, but intrinsically safe handsets and tablets are rare and plagued with the same long-standing shortcomings of limited software, poor functionality, and low grade connectivity.
Apple’s success with the iPhone demonstrates that the pathway to success starts with the handset. It is the handset that unlocks the innovation in software and starts the transformation of work processes. Until a low cost, intrinsically safe and generalized handset becomes available, industrial sites languish in the paper age.
Have Suncor and Otterbox Cracked The Code?
On an upcoming podcast, my guest is Andrea Hine, an engineer working at Suncor, and she shares news of a ground-breaking development in mobility. Suncor and Otterbox (a maker of phone cases) have perfected a case design that turns an out-of-the-box smart phone from Apple into an intrinsically safe device.
When she told me this, and showed me the UL-certified case, my world trembled. For two decades I’ve stared at this problem to be solved—bringing the innovation power of the app ecosystem to the front line industrial worker—and it’s finally here. The most concrete orthodoxy of our industry—the front line worker cannot be fully digitally enabled—has been broken.
Suncor and Otterbox faced a host of technical hurdles to be overcome. Without a spec from Apple about the handset, developers had to brute-force test the designs. Materials for the case had to be able to withstand the environmental extremes one encounters in industrial settings (cold, heat, wet). Devices had to work within the electrically noisy world of industrial equipment. While inside the case, the device had to meet the Apple standard of functionality (buttons, cameras, touch screen, microphone, speakers) under this dramatic range of circumstances, and to eliminate all risk of sparks, leaks, and other hazards.
Suncor has rolled out the new cases and handsets to thousands of front line workers, and the use cases that I had imagined 20 years ago are finally being realized. The safety of the workers has taken a huge leap forward through early hazard detection, improved permitting, a reduction in needless travel, and better access to live data about operating conditions.
Of course, innovation doesn’t stop at the handset. The device is merely the first step. Next, wireless access to the industrial applications needs to be enabled (and many of those technologies have been resolutely anti-cloud). The applications used by the front line need to be reimagined for the small screen, and not just squeezed onto the little pane of glass. The complete user experience needs to be overhauled. The 1990s work processes that are based on the combination of desk computers, paper trails, clip boards, face to face meetings, extensive site travel, chains of command and authority, will shatter, as they have in other industries.
The world has in turn changed for all the industrial SCADA technology companies (Siemens, Hitachi, ABB) who for years have built their technologies around the asset to be monitored and with scant regard for the digitally off-line worker. Their competitive landscape will now demand full cloud accessibility, mobile device interfaces, and robust cyber protections.
The digital ecosystem for industrial applications can now take off. The carefully constructed walled gardens that limited innovation to what could be crafted in Excel and run on a laptop are finally open.
Engineers with an entrepreneurial bent who have built some clever solution that is trapped inside a single company can now consider the possibility of taking their innovation to the world via the app ecosystem pathway.
As a UL certified device, a case-enclosed handset can now be safely deployed in other industries with equally strict safety requirements, such as mining, petrochemicals, and power.
My 20 year wait is over. With a fully compliant field safe case, companies can finally move their digital transformation agendas to the final 10 feet of their companies.
Artwork is by Geoffrey Cann, and cranked out on an iPad using Procreate.