As the need for more innovation has increased in agricultural, construction and other off-highway applications, it has become imperative for OEM manufacturers that serve these markets to incorporate electronic controls to provide these benefits. Electronic controls, usually implemented using a control module that serves as the nerve center to facilitate the actuation of hydraulic or pneumatic based mechanical systems, have become a near standard to providing the “smart” capabilities that customers have started to expect.
As JCA Electronics provides systems that fit this requirement but do so using the unique capability of having wireless connectivity as a default option in most of our controller products, we thought it would be interesting to review some of the lessons learned working with early innovators combining wireless applications with electronic controls in mobile machine applications.
We will look at common challenges we’ve encountered designing and building applications in this rapidly changing area of technology along with the solutions that have proven to work. We examine the proper software engineering standards that provide a platform for iterative refinement and other considerations needed to be successful in producing wireless applications in this area.
Benefits of Wireless Connectivity in Mobile Machine Applications
The capability of wireless connectivity in mobile machine applications that JCA Electronics provides have proven to be as beneficial as expected. First, it has enabled applications that would otherwise not be possible. The versatility of modern tablets and smartphones and their diverse capabilities coupled with the wireless connectivity in our control modules have spawned many novel solutions that have proven to be beneficial in the field while reducing the overall lifetime cost of development.
From event triggered alerts that notify the operator when an issue in the equipment they are operating needs their attention to complicated user interfaces that allow an operator to monitor the status of multiple machines, modern tablets and smartphones have changed the baseline expectations of off-highway applications. Quite simply, users have become used to what their personal devices can do for them and expect the same types of apps when operating the equipment that generates a living for them.
We have heard from customers that delivering support in the field has become more manageable with the combination of wireless connectivity and the use of off-the-shelf tablets and smartphones. First, OEM’s can utilize app stores to distribute their applications – leveraging the infrastructure that has become a backbone of the modern consumer marketplace. Major version changes along with urgent corrections or bug fixes to software can be easily be distributed around the world to an OEM’s customers through a simple update on one or all the major app stores. Additionally, systems built with JCA technology can provide in-field configuration and updates to the machine control modules through mobile software. This allows an OEM’s equipment to benefit from the latest firmware releases without having to send out service technicians or bringing the equipment back to a service location. It has radically reduced service costs, and allows for a user-controlled machine software process by even the machine operators who are not technologically savvy. By using the app store infrastructure to push automatic app updates to smartphones that include machine software upgrades, then having the app prompt the operator to update software when the machine is connected and it is convenient for the operator, this consumer technology is best leveraged to bring value to OEMs.
The overall lifetime cost of implementation of an application can also be significantly lower. First, the cost of the solution is lower because off-the-shelf tablets or smart phones can be utilized to provide the user interface to the application, removing the need for traditional terminals that would cost thousands of dollars more. The availability of in-field updates and short iteration cycles allow for applications to be tested by customers sooner and their feedback used and collected to drive further improvements through the next software update. This results in an overall flexibility and robustness in the solution provided to the OEM’s end user.
As tablets and smartphone applications find more uses in the consumer market space, the availability of off-the-shelf software libraries that can be used for off-highway software applications continues to grow. Either in the form of open source libraries or paid-for commercial libraries, our OEM customers can benefit from the overall reduction in development costs, time and other risks by utilizing these mature and diverse libraries. From mapping libraries, to object detection and sensing, boundary detection and user interfaces, these libraries provide a significant savings in the applications JCA has built for our existing OEM customers.
Some Best Practices
Having covered some of the major benefits we have seen with the wireless capability inherent to our control modules, here are some other lessons learned from some of the initial real-world applications JCA has been involved with in working with innovative early adopters of this technology in off-highway applications.
Software Engineering – Important as Ever
The principles and processes of software engineering are just as important, if not more, when building tablet or smartphone applications for the off-highway landscape. As these apps perform tasks as diverse as monitoring and data collection to providing operational control to large machinery – the benefits can be tremendous but also require a level of professionalism in development that a typical app targeted at the consumer market might not require.
A professionally managed development process paired with an Agile approach to such complex applications have proven to be successful. Professional software management practices using project management tools like Jira, version management tools like git, and now standard software engineering practices like regular code reviews allow the frequent release of versions of software – each version putting forward milestones on a previously planned development path or resolving the latest bug found testing the equipment in the field. This approach has been crucial in an environment where the next challenge that will be encountered is rarely predictable without frequent field testing.
Iterate to Find Solutions
Solving problems in agriculture, construction or any other off-highway application has always been about getting a solution into the field as soon as possible that are tested, proven, and bring real value. This requires a development process that includes testing early and iterating until the solution is refined to the point where it is ready for deployment. We’ve found this approach is both efficient and successful at delivering systems to the field. Using the flexibility of the app stores previously mentioned and the over-the-air update or configuration capability that our controllers provide, the development team can work closely with the OEM’s in-field technical staff to iterate on different solutions. This approach reduces the time to solve the various challenges that will come up during development and reduces the risk that a system under development will not work once it goes into production.
It is worth noting that similar iterations of software and hardware versions during the development period have been the mainstay of existing electronic control modules. However, the wireless capability of modules like the JCA Falcon or JCA Thrasher along with user familiarity with off-the-shelf tablets or smartphones make it even easier to implement and therefore more likely to be performed.
As the drive for smarter and more versatile applications in agriculture, construction and other related fields continue, the use of wireless applications running in parallel with traditional terminal based applications will increase. The once anticipated benefits of reduced overall development cost, reliability in the field and improved deployment strategies available to tablets and smartphones have been proven and will ensure that this path is well worn going forward. This path is now routinely being taken by companies like JCA, its OEM partners and other early adopters in the marketplace.
If OEM entrants looking to develop their own tablet-based solutions for their own end users are to look at the experiences of those that have gone before them, the learnings point to the use of robust electronic control modules natively equipped with wireless capability, partnering with development teams that can put the best practices of software engineering to effect and using their proven experiences to deal with other important considerations like the ones mentioned in the article.