Haverhill, Mass., water treatment plant uses iPads to monitor systems

GE software connects workers to plant controls and alarms

Tablet computers are popping up just about everywhere, even in Haverhill, Mass., where workers at the local water treatment plant use the devices to monitor its systems.

Water treatment plant workers in Haverhill, Mass., monitor the system via iPads and a GE app.

Six on-call workers at the facility, which serves 58,000 customers, monitor alarms and other systems using iPads connected over wireless LTE. The workers can also get graphical insights to a complex system of controls and alarms.

If there's a leak or a problem with a mixture of chemicals, a General Electric Intelligent Platforms automation software system will report the issue. Workers can pick up the reports on their iPads from anywhere they can make a cellular connection, said John D'Aoust, the plant manager.

"They have all the features of the control room in their hands," D'Aoust said in an interview. Client software from GE on the iPads connects to a server in the control room, which shows schematic drawings of the system. The iPads can also connect to video feeds from security cameras, which are seen as important in an era when homeland security officials are increasingly worried about potential terrorist attacks on domestic systems such as water plants and train stations.

For security, Haverhill connects over Verizon Wireless LTE using a VPN connection, he said. GE announced the iPad capability in July and has deployed the iPads at a battery plant in New York, the Haverhill treatment plant facility and other locations, GE officials said.

D'Aoust said GE's Human-Machine Interface (HMI) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software has been used since about 2000 at the plant. Before the tablets, the workers would carry Dell laptops equipped with cellular dongles to monitor the water treatment systems.

The tablets cost $629 each, about one-third as much as the laptops, and are more convenient to use in some ways, D'Aoust said. "Our younger staff made a very easy integration to the touchscreen interface and gestures that you need."

While D'Aoust said the iPad with GE's Proficy app works very well, he said it needs to be improved to run in parallel with other applications such as email on the tablet. If a worker wants to open an email, for example, the Proficy app is dropped, and the worker needs to reconnect to the server.

Using the iPad and the Proficy app haven't boosted the 32-year-old treatment facility to state of the art, but they have made Haverhill's plant "ahead of most utilities of our size," D'Aoust said.

D'Aoust said he's happy with the iPad integration, but wants to look at Windows Surface and Windows 8 tablets as well when they are available. Currently the GE app only works on iPad, he noted.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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