In the town of Haverhill in northeast Massachusetts, some 58,000 residents depend on a 32-year-old water treatment plant to deliver 5.5 million gallons of fresh water per day. Six plant operators take turns on-call seven days a week between the hours of 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. to troubleshoot problems.
One iPad is at the center of it all, sounding the alarm.
When most people think about iPad enterprise adoption, they envision a cadre of salespeople showing presentations to prospective customers on flashy iPads. But the Haverhill water treatment plant was able to see past the glamorous Retina display and put the iPad in a critical operations role.
In doing so, “the iPad has really simplified everything,” says plant manager John D’Aoust.
For the last four months, the iPad has been handed off from operator to operator to be taken home and used while on-call. Using an iOS app called ProficySCADA from GE Intelligent Platforms, the WiFi-plus-cellular iPad mimics software on a 21-inch monitor in the control room back at the plant and alerts the operator whenever problems arise.
Operators can zoom in and check water tank levels or status of pumps and compressors, and respond appropriately right from the iPad. D’Aoust also has an iPad with those same capabilities, as well as additional ones such as remote desktop for backup and support.
How did the iPad find its way to the water treatment plant? Call it a matter of good timing.
The plant’s expensive laptop was nearing its four-year refresh cycle around the same time that GE Intelligent Platforms had come out with the app. Meanwhile, the iPad was proving itself as a reliable enterprise device at a third of the cost of a laptop with an aircard and licensed software.
While executives at other companies have been known to bring iPads to work on a whim, the water treatment plant spent seven months testing the iPad.
Security proved to be the biggest hang-up. The plant wanted to make sure unauthorized people couldn’t get into control systems via the iPad, but its existing virtual private network didn’t support Apple devices. After months of research, the plant settled on a solution from Juniper, which has an iOS app that allows a secure connection to a private network.
D’Aoust also looked into the iPhone as an option but felt that the screen size was too small. He suspects the iPad Mini wouldn’t be able to mimic the 21-inch monitor, either, at least not to the satisfaction of operators. The standard-sized iPad, though, was just right.
“It seems to be a good fit for mobility and usability,” D’Aoust says.
Of course, there are some improvements still to be made. The app has a multi-step login to the VPN and control system, and these connections break whenever an operator checks email or runs another app. GE Intelligent Platforms is working on maintaining connections in the background, D’Aoust says.
Also, many operators aren’t technically savvy and might get stuck in portrait mode on the iPad, yet the app only renders appropriately in landscape mode. Or operators might accidentally update iOS using their Apple password on the company iPad before ProficySCADA has been tested for compatibility.
Spending months to install a new VPN, adopting a new app and training a half-dozen operators seems like a lot of work for a single enterprise iPad. Yet Haverhill’s water treatment plant understands that there is much more to the iPad than flipping through presentation slides or playing Angry Birds.
As the Haverhill water plant has proven, the iPad opens up a new era of enterprise mobility at the industrial level.
“We might get one or two more for use in the plant, so operators aren’t tied down to the control room,” D’Aoust says. “They can access information as they inspect the plant on their rounds, maybe collect some data.”
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.