Mobile devices have become ubiquitous. It's time to move them into industrial apps.

We're living in a world shaped by the mobile revolution. Now, even the industrial sector is being affected by the availability and power of mobile devices. But for mobile to truly meet the need, there needs to be an industrial version.

Smartphone penetration is set to exceed 2 billion users this year. Such a huge number puts to shame fixed telephone and television penetration. The most widely used technical inventions of the first and the second half of 20th century, they had 1.26 and 1.6 billion units at their peak, respectively.

Smartphones have become an extension of our body. We use them almost unconsciously to access the information web and to nurture our digital alter egos. People without them are becoming increasingly "out of touch."

But the mobile revolution’s reach is not limited only to the personal domain. It has impacted businesses as well, changing the way we interact, buy, and sell. Mobile technology has enabled the transformation of asset ownership business models into pay-as-you-go schemes in numerous sectors, especially in transportation. Companies that recognised the power of mobile in its early stages are the business leaders of today.

Industrial sector players have stayed largely indifferent to the tectonic changes that the consumer market was experiencing. Most industrial experts have argued that smartphone technology is made for consumer applications and hence cannot be employed in the industry. But although no reasonable engineer will disregard such an argument, let’s consider briefly what smartphone technology has to offer: a platform familiar to two billion users, a compact yet powerful hardware form factor, energy-efficient operation, ultra-high-definition video processing capabilities, contextual awareness through low-power sound and sensor signal processing, integrated wireless data connectivity, and access to a vast mobile application universe. Wise business leaders should not ignore such a compelling offering, despite all the technical challenges in implementation.

Yet the most profound impact mobile technology could make on industrial markets goes beyond the hardware. New business models fostered on the consumer mobile market can be applied in various industrial markets as well. In fact, a list of industrial sectors that have strong potential to be disrupted by application of “industrial mobile” products is quite extensive. It includes medical, test and measurement, instrumentation, robotics, military, logistics, transportation, and more.

Today, the only feasible way to exploit mobile technology in industrial applications is to use off-the-shelf consumer mobile devices (smartphones or tablets) and attach proprietary function modules on them as an add-on. There are a lot of companies already doing so: MobiSante for ultrasound, FLIR One for IR camera, and Oscium for oscilloscopes and spectrum analysers, to name a few.

But there are two essential drawbacks with such an approach. First, consumer devices have a short market lifetime. Second, smartphones and tablets have a limited set of interfaces to equipment in the outside world. Currently, there's no easy way to connect even a simple hardware device directly to smartphone hardware, without usage of add-on USB device or radio "dongle" of some kind. In most practical cases, this means the manufacturer seeking to attach proprietary functions to a tablet of smartphone has to build an additional embedded device to process physical signals and communicate with the smartphone via Wi-Fi/Bluetooth radio or a USB port (if available).

Unfortunately, smartphone technology is not currently within the reach of industrial product manufacturers due to the specific nature of the mobile supply chain. Mobile chipset providers are focused on a small number of high-profile consumer device manufacturers, disregarding the highly fragmented industrial market. It seems this situation will not change soon, either; mobile technology will stay on the other side of the wall for industrial manufacturers for now.

Yet, there's a powerful market force we have to take into account. The technology gap between ARM-based industrial embedded solutions and consumer mobile devices, which became apparent a few years ago, is widening each day. Most readers can remember the not-so-distant past when ARM industrial embedded computing platforms introduced to the market were as powerful as their smartphone counterparts. Today, industrial embedded ARM solutions lag behind consumer mobile, with a delay in market introduction of two to three years. This situation will only get worse because some of the leading industrial computing platform providers left the expensive game and stopped their competition with the mobile sector in the introduction of the latest ARM Cortex A-series application processor technology.

But the pressure on the wall is building and industry has to devise a way to implement consumer mobile technology. It is not natural for technology so advanced to stay out of reach of industry.

In finding the right way to topple that wall industry can take a lesson from the industrial PC market. Some 20 years ago a similar pressure to incorporate mainstream PC technology in industrial applications was rising. From the perspective of "industrial embedded" solutions of the time, Intel 386 and Pentium offered what seemed to be a quantum leap in performance and flexibility. However, in a world dominated by Wintel, x86 processors weren't an easy thing for industrial players to get their hands on, much like smartphone SoCs of today.

The solution to the availability problem was found in the definition of standardised computer-on-module form factors: starting with PC/104 in the late eighties and ending with contemporary COM Express. The introduction of standardised form factors that could be equally utilised in many different applications provided the production volume needed to provoke an interest from technology suppliers (Intel at the time) to support the effort.

It is possible to devise a similar Computer-On-Module (COM) concept based on smartphone technology. Such an "industrial mobile" modular platform will enable industrial manufacturers to produce an entirely new class of mobile-influenced devices. An open-architecture mobile COM platform with a rich set of radio and wired interfaces will provide all the benefits of smartphone technology, without the limitations of the smartphone device in terms of shape and available connections to peripheral devices. Such a platform will enable manufacturers to incorporate the latest developments from consumer mobile into their devices, and also enable new and innovative business models.

The architecture of mobile devices is different from that of PC devices, however. While performance was traditionally the most important goal in PC technology, for mobile devices there were always two factors: power consumption and physical size. In order to efficiently satisfy both these requirements, the mobile industry came up with a different architecture and set of interfaces, defined and maintained by the MIPI Alliance organisation. MIPI interface standards are specifically designed for power-efficiency, flexibility, and low-cost implementation.

MIPI 01 Figure 1: System diagram (Source: MIPI Alliance)

So, it is reasonable to expect that the future "industrial mobile" computer module specification will be based on MIPI interfaces. There's no sense in transforming "native" mobile interfaces present on the components of such modules into "industrial" interfaces as we know them. "Industrial" interfaces of today are in fact just a legacy of the PC world (PCIe, Ethernet, SATA). Fortunately, mobile MIPI interfaces are already becoming accepted for some industrial applications. Typical examples are the CSI interface for camera inputs, and DSI for display outputs.

Industrial mobile is coming. Are we ready for it?