iQagent is designed to improve access to relevant asset information within plant operations and improves communication during downtime through the use of QR Codes. This information includes live process data from SCADA systems, PLCs, and process databases, as well as documents, movies, URLs and web forms. iQagent is a very useful tool in plants with lots of automation, as these tend to have a lot of documents and data what are required by plant floor professionals. 3D Visualization World interviewed Bob Meads, CEO at iQagent Inc. to learn more about this innovative technology.
3DVW: Could we begin by asking you what interested you in the kind of work that iQuest Incorporated does and how the company began?
BM: I founded iQuest, inc. in 1998 in Alpharetta, GA as a provider of expert SCADA and HMI Integration for customers in the manufacturing and process industries. I later added an office near Tampa, Florida, where we provide PLC programming, automated machine design, and machine shop services to our growing customer base. Lately we have released a few software products which are created to solve real problems on the plant floor. We have always been interested in new technology and how to apply it to existing problems on the plant floor.
3DVW: What is iQagent and what does it do?
BM: iQagent provides a practical solution to two problems that occur on every plant floor, every day. One problem is that users are often required to leave the plant floor in order to get data and resources relevant to the equipment they are working on. The second issue is that communication about production downtime issues with remote technicians is often inefficient; production operators have to use email text or phone to describe issues, and they often leave out important details.
iQagent is a mobile app that uses the device camera to scan for QR Codes in order to recognize equipment or processes on your plant floor. We call these QR Codes “points Of Interest”, or POIs. When a QR Code is scanned, the app displays information about the equipment or area on the device screen. This information includes live process data from SCADA systems, PLCs, and process databases, as well as documents, movies, URLs and web forms. The purpose is to display information based on where you are in the plant, or what equipment you are working on. Users no longer have to leave the equipment in order to get these resources.
Another feature of iQagent provides a solution for more efficient communication about process downtime issues with remote support resources. Users can record the entire display, including live video, audio, process data and on screen annotations. The compiled MP4 can be compressed and sent to remote support personnel for quicker analysis and resolution without waiting for them to arrive onsite. Users can also create and email annotated snapshots of the display.
3DVW: Many infrastructure, construction and plant projects wrestle with large volumes of drawings. What are the benefits of digital documentation in your view and how can these reduce costs for projects and where does iQagent fit into this challenge?
BM: There are many published reports of the benefits of electronic documentation over paper ones. Paper documents are susceptible to being lost, damaged or destroyed, and usually can only be accessed by one person at a time. And it may take time to identify the required document from a large stack of related documents. Paper documents also incur annual costs for printing, storing, management. All of these costs can be mitigated by converting paper documents to electronic versions.
One of the great benefits of electronic documents is that they can be accessed from any PC or mobile device on the network. iQagent allows users to directly access electronic documents where they are most useful, which is at the equipment itself. This one feature allows for customers to realize ROI from the first day they use it.
3DVW: QR Codes play a unique role in your plant operation app. Please explain how that works. Could you mention a few examples where this technology is being used.
BM: We looked at many technologies in order to allow iQagent to identify equipment on the plant floor and decided that using QR codes was the most accurate and least invasive; many plants won’t allow new infrastructure to be added, such as beacons, and we didn’t want to have to add anything to the mobile device such as an RFID reader. GPS was out of the question for most indoor facilities, as was adding triangulation code to their wireless routers. So we settled on tagging each POI with a QR Code.
iQagent is an off the shelf product. It’s a drag and drop interface and no programming is required. Users configure iQagent by associating relevant data to each POI created. The users then print the QR code and attach it to the relevant equipment or process area. Then the system is ready for use on the plant floor.
iQagent uses the device camera to identify and decode QR Codes which belong to the iQagent system. Once identified, the iQagent client sends its data to the iQagent server installed on site, which returns all relevant data associated with the scanned POI. Updates to the system are automatic, so when new documents or data are associated with a POI, it’s available instantly.
iQagent is a very useful tool in plants with lots of automation, as these tend to have a lot of documents and data what are required by plant floor professionals. iQagent is currently being used in production environments in the US as well as Europe. Specifically, we are in several plants for two globally recognized automakers, as well as a global chemical pharmaceutical company.
3DVW: Many plants are moving toward 3D data collection (ie. Point clouds) for design and asset management purposes. How does iQagent handle 3D design data and the visualization of 3D spaces?
BM: Currently we do not support 3D visualization; we are interested in getting customer requirements for supporting these features.
3DVW: We often hear plant managers talk about asset management and documentation with respect to reduced risk and scheduling of downtime. Do you see clients using your technology along these lines?
BM: Yes. iQagent is currently being used as part of asset management systems at some of our customers. They use web forms to track assets and record their locations on an annual basis. In iQagent, we create links to these forms on the equipment’s POI, so they are easily available to users and auditors at the equipment. The asset information is automatically filled in so there is much less risk in equipment misidentification and data recording errors.
The great thing about iQagent is that we don’t bring any new data or resources to the table. Instead, we link to the systems you already have and make their resources available at the equipment where they are relevant.
3DVW: In your view, are there other possible uses for augmented reality in the workplace, particularly industrial applications?
BM: Many people know what “Augmented Reality” is, but not what it really does. AR technology can give users direct relevant information in context with the real world. For example, AR apps can be used to show a user which adjustment port on a machine requires adjusting, rather than the user translating the information from a schematic or picture in a procedure. This has two important benefits: 1) less chance of a mistake, and 2) we can use a less skilled worker to perform the task.
AR is a great fit for plant floor challenges. I see real AR applications that will guide users through inspection, adjustment or repair processes without the need to refer to manuals or procedures, which shift the users focus away from the task at hand. This method is faster and more efficient, and is less prone to mistakes by the user. Also, we can spend less time training users for these tasks since they are essentially being led through the process each time.
AR can also be used to allow better communication and collaboration between plant workers and remote resources. The remote user can use AR to show the local technician how to perform repairs and make adjustments.
3DVW: Since many manufacturers of design and process software are often involved in plant operations, how does the integration of other vendors formats and technologies in the plant work with iQagent?
BM: iQagent uses standard protocols to communicate with existing plant systems in order for us to provide maximum benefit to the user. We communicate with PLCs, SCADA and HMI systems via OPCDA. If the plant uses PLCs but not a SCADA, we can easily add an OPCDA Server to talk with the PLCs and make the data accessible via OPC to clients, such as iQagent. We also use ODBC and OLEDB Data Sources to access information from Plant database systems which use databases such as Oracle or SQL Server as their back end. These include MES, ERP, LMS and Preventative Maintenance systems. Access to Electronic Document Management systems is done via standard HTTPS protocols, so most EDM systems are accessible via iQagent.
3DVW: Can this product work without Internet connections, for example, in remote operating environments? Does it work with all operating systems?
BM: iQagent does not require access to Cloud Services or a connection to the internet from the plant floor; it works using the plants own wireless network. All iQagent software is under the direct control of the user and is installed in their plant and on their network.
iQagent is currently supported on IOS devices such as iPad and iPhone, as well as devices running Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro.
We are currently working on a “lite” version which won’t even require a wireless network connection to access documents. It is scheduled to be released in a few months from now.
3DVW: Do you see this product being used beyond plant environments? Would our readers in the design, construction and other infrastructure applications be able to integrate this product into their processes?
BM: Yes. iQagent was created for industrial spaces, but there are applications in many vertical markets, such as field service, sales, medical, warehousing and related uses. We are exploring these opportunities as our customer base expands.
Bob Meads has a diverse technology-based background which began when he joined the Navy in 1984. As an Electronics Technician serving aboard submarines and various surface vessels, Bob worked on inertial navigation systems, RADAR, HF communication systems and cryptographic equipment. Bob’s Navy career was highlighted with several performance awards, culminating in being named Surface Forces Atlantic Fleet Sailor of The Year for 1990. After the Navy, Bob became a production engineer at NEC Technologies in McDonough, GA, a manufacturer of computer monitors and external CD-ROM drives. Bob served as group leader for 12 electronic technicians and became involved in defining manufacturing processes and production testing for the MultiSync series computer monitors and external CD-ROM drives.
Bob left NEC in 1994 to pursue a newfound interest in developing software, receiving a BS in Computer Science and Electronic Technology from Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, GA. He then took a position at Siemens Energy and Automation in Alpharetta, GA working with new Windows-based Human Machine Interface (HMI) development software called WinCC. When the position moved to New Jersey, Bob started his first company, iQuest, in 1998, as an HMI and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) Consultant and automation integrator. Today, Bob still runs iQuest, and has started a new company, iQagent, Inc., a mobile software company whose goal is to provide applications and software for the plant floor. Their flagship product, iQagent is a “practical Augmented Reality“ product that helps companies reduce costs by providing instant access to resources based on equipment it recognizes in manufacturing and production spaces.
For more information: http://www.iQagent.com