8 Benefits of Using Tablets as Displays in Off-Highway and Industrial Machines

The trend is reversing for displays in off-road rugged equipment. Instead of incorporating lots of control logic into display systems, it’s going to become much simpler.

The preeminence of the display as a compute source on the machine, rather than a simple operator interface, was born more of convenience rather than an optimal machine control architecture. When more complex display terminals began to emerge on the market, many of those terminals were utilizing a Windows operating system. The hardware needed to host Windows was left with unutilized computing power. Many organizations, as a result, began taking advantage of that by putting machine control software into the terminal.

Today, however, significant computing potential is possible within embedded devices with a broad spectrum of affordable processor and memory technologies. This gives machinery manufacturers the potential to inexpensively push the control logic out of the terminal and back into the electronic control units, making the displays true thin clients and providing manufacturers much more display flexibility at a lower cost.

Here are 8 ways manufacturers can benefit from using smart devices in place of display terminals.

1. Leverage investments made by consumer electronics manufacturers
Industrial and off-highway vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers are simply not capable of matching pace with the investment and technical progression of the devices in the consumer electronic world. The level of investment and speed of technology deployed in consumer devices by companies like Apple and Samsung is simply not within the reach of industrial and off-highway equipment sectors.

Exacerbating this problem is the limited volumes in the off-highway and industrial spaces — they are only able to access these technologies after they become available in consumer devices, and we then still need to spend years achieving their introduction to a machine. This cycle leaves manufacturers lagging the curve of consumer display expectations by years while investing a lot of time and money into advanced display systems that feel substandard by the time they reach operators (when compared against the latest phone or tablet they carry).

One way of mitigating this problem is by pushing some display functions into mobile devices. Here, without any hardware development or integration investment, equipment manufacturers can leverage the hundreds of millions of R&D dollars put into consumer electronics, as well as the additional investments in the infrastructure that supports them. In this sense, by developing and deploying mobile applications that seamlessly connect with machinery, manufacturers get to leverage the latest in processing and display systems while minimizing investments.

2. Push display features into operator mobile devices
This requires some consideration for both security and safety strategies that vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. On one end of the spectrum, the mobile device can be used as a simple display. The device receives information from the machine over a wireless link. This information is then rendered into value-added real-time information for the operator to view on the phone or tablet display, including whatever visual or auditory alerts are needed by the operator.

On the other end of the spectrum, the mobile device is an interactive element of the machine control architecture. In this embodiment the operator can provide machine control inputs through the phone or tablet — whether that operator is within or outside of the machine’s cab.

And, of course, there are many hybrid models for the utilization of the mobile devices in interaction with off highway and industrial equipment where input capabilities through the mobile device are possible, but limited to a smaller set of functions.

3. Utilize app update infrastructure through Android, Apple, and other devices
Where delivery of a new embedded feature or capability might require a service bulletin, dealer notice, or integration with a new vehicle model year the deployment of complimentary mobile capabilities can be done in a matter of days and launched whenever may be convenient for a vehicle manufacturer.

When coupled with the ability to deliver ECU firmware through the mobile application interface, it becomes possible for vehicle manufacturers to perform significant update campaigns, verify which vehicles have been reached with those campaigns, and to do so without any telematic or dealer service expenses.

4. Break the dependence on vehicle model year release cycles
It has, traditionally, been very difficult to add value for customers of off-highway equipment out of cycle with a machine’s delivery. Should a competitor release a new feature in many circumstances we as an industry are relegated to waiting for the next machine cycle to deliver a competitive response. To the extent that there is mobile experience integrated with the usage of the machine, innovative features enabled through the mobile application can be deployed at any time giving manufacturers the potential to quickly deliver differentiable features out of sequence with machine model year cycles (and make those features available to both new and existing customers).

5. Leverage community to fuel development and growth
With a mobile application also comes the potential to leverage community to fuel development and growth. For example, if there is an industrial segment that is a relatively small consumer of machines but has a strong desire for a specific display, license can be extended by the equipment manufacturer to view and use the data output by the machine. In this manner, a supplier in a specific market segment can develop an application experience that is unique to that one market segment, providing a value added experience to operators in that segment without requiring any development investment, support, or maintenance from the vehicle manufacturer.

6. Rapidly deliver features / speeding to market
Embedded development can be comparatively time consuming and expensive when compared against mobile development. Embedded developers are generally more difficult to hire and train, the software more time consuming to develop and deploy, and the verification and validation activity associated therewith similarly nontrivial. In contrast, working against a defined embedded interface mobile software development is comparatively less expensive, developers more accessible, and software deployment more rapid.

7. Display cost reductions
To the extent that operators are bringing their own devices, and machine displays can become simpler and less expensive, this initiative offers the potential for cost reduction of the machine electrics while delivering more features to its operators.

8. Capture user and machine data
Utilization of a mobile application provides a broad spectrum of possibilities for the capture of both machine and operator data. For machines where telematic connectivity may not be possible, utilization of an application may provide the ability to cache and deliver valuable machine data to a manufacturer (in lieu of the cellular connectivity onboard the machine). The application can also acquire demographics about users, and information about how they navigate and use the application, that can provide user and usage statistics that can become a powerful force for informing future development activity that will help optimize equipment and interfaces for operators.

David Batcheller – President & CBO