December Issue

Why It Sometimes Makes Sense to Go Slow With Mobile Development

Mobile device management illustration

At nuclear plant builder Westinghouse, mobile app developers seek to avoid bugs that could lead to danger

Mobile app development is usually cheap, fast and dirty: Introduce some functionality and fix the problems over time. At Westinghouse Electric, however, there's no room for error in the development of a tablet application critical for testing the nuclear power facilities it builds for electricity providers around the world.

Westinghouse's new all-digital AP1000 nuclear power plants undergo two years of rigorous testing of their 100 systems. And the development of an application to streamline that process is also expected to take that long, on top of two years already spent searching for the right mobile development partner and toolkit. Work began this year with vendor Copper Mobile, and the application won't be live until 2016.

"We have to make sure the procedures we use to manipulate a plant are very precise," says Robert Butera, director of enterprise applications and development systems at Westinghouse. "It's nuclear safety culture: Stop, think, act, review."

Proceeding Cautiously With Nuclear

In an industry that operates under the specter of incidents such as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and failures at Fukushima following the Sendai earthquake in 2011, slow is the prudent way to go.

[Related: Don't Let Mobile Development Ruin Your Life ]

The new system will replace paper-based proc­esses -- 100,000 pages of tests that are duplicated up to six times -- with a mobile app that can be taken into the field and record results, which are then consolidated into a master record for regulators and auditors.

"We believe we can shorten the time it takes to do the testing program and reduce the potential for human error," says Greg Weaver, Westinghouse's manager of AP1000 preoperational testing. "If errors occur, we have to retest all the systems, causing delays," he says, and that "costs a lot of money." Indeed, it costs $1 million for every day a plant doesn't produce electricity, he says.

The project is proceeding in phases. First, the teams will demonstrate that the conversion from paper to tablet works. Then they will work on the testing functionality. Eventually they will build a dashboard allowing those at the corporate command center to see test results. Then there will be a pilot at nuclear plants in Georgia and South Carolina. Throughout, programmers at vendor Copper Mobile are using agile development processes and breaking the work into two-week sprints.

Being Meticulous Doesn't Have to Cost More

While it's not fast, it isn't necessarily more expensive to develop a mobile application this meticulously, says Don Remlinger, an IS business process consultant at Westinghouse. "Anything that appears to cost more is far outweighed by avoiding untested scenarios on the back end," he explains.

Two big challenges have been connectivity and security. There's not always a wireless connection in the bowels of a power plant. Some buildings--in China, for example--prohibit wireless. The application will enable users to work offline and upload results later. In addition, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strict cybersecurity protocols with which Westinghouse must comply.

The mobile app will cut annual paper costs by $120,000, Westinghouse says. It should reduce errors and testing time. Plus, Weaver says, the mobile app could also make money: The company may sell it to others in the nuclear industry.

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