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Making the Connection

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 9:31am
Paul Livingstone

The presence of Fluke’s Connect technology in the industrial test and measurement marketplace may replace the fastest recording tools of them all: pencil and paper.

Fluke Connect capitalizes on the widespread use of smartphones in industrial settings by allowing technicians to use the device to actively monitor instruments, log data automatically and share crucial information with colleagues. Image: FlukeWireless technology is already widespread in the research laboratory and industrial settings, where solutions are supported by WiFi and the advent of smartphones and tablets. Dedicated wireless platforms for scientific instruments, however, are more unusual.

The reason for this is economies of scale. So many consumer electronics are sold each year that big companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple can afford to commit significant resources to wireless technology development. Vendors of specialized scientific or industrial equipment have far less wiggle room. Their efforts are better spent on development of products that deliver higher performance, better reliability, repeatability and lower cost. It’s often better to stick with tried-and-true solutions, even pencil, paper and clipboards, than risk a wireless technology that might not be robust enough for a professional setting.

However, this is beginning to change, and one of the largest testing device companies, Fluke Corp., Everett, Wash., is leading the charge. After a five-year R&D effort, the company has introduced its first integrated, multi-product wireless control technology, called Fluke Connect. The system, which is supplied as standard or an option to more than 20 existing Fluke tools, lets technicians or researchers wirelessly transmit measurement data from their test tools to their smartphones for secure storage on the cloud. It also permits universal access from the field for all organization members.

How Connect works
Three individual pieces make Fluke’s Connect work. First, a smartphone. Initially, Fluke Connect was implemented only with the iPhone and Apple OS. An iPhone 4S or higher is required. By the time this article appears, Connect will also be available on a variety of Android phones, including the Galaxy S4, Nexus 5 and HTC One running operating system version 4.4.x or higher.

The Fluke Connect application features four major functions. ShareLive enables real-time video calls, which allow technicians to visually communicate the status or installation of a tool or measurement device. It also enables direct live data sharing. AutoRecord is designed to facilitate measurements. It can instantly save measurements and images, both to the smartphone and to Fluke’s online data sharing resource, Fluke Cloud.

Another important function related to data records is EquipmentLog, which automatically associates measurements with equipment so historical data is in one place. Finally, Fluke’s TrendIt tool allows users to generate graphs based on live data directly on their smartphone.

What tools benefit from this new capability? They include some of Fluke’s most common instruments, such as digital multimeters and thermometers.

The primary function of Fluke Connect is to provide value to customers. The tool is intended to save time and effort for users, which helps explain the choices Fluke’s developers made with regard to which tools have implemented Connect.

According to Paul Heydron, VP of engineering at Fluke, when development of Connect began more than five years ago, particular attention was paid to instruments used in a repeatable manner time after time. These included thermometers and portable appliance testers.

“We also have a lot of general-purpose products,” says Heydron, referring to digital multimeters and portable oscilloscopes, which are highly adaptable to a range of tasks. “What are customers using these for? It’s anything and everything.”

A common theme that emerged from the different use models, says Heydron, were responses such as: “I wish I could consult with my colleague, but he’s not here”, or “I wish I had written the data down yesterday, but there was no easy way to do that”.

Fluke responded to these customers’ wants when the wireless technology reached a point where a quantifiable reduction in net effort on the part of its customers could be achieved through its implementation.

So Fluke’s developers began with the ad hoc tools, focusing on a few simple requirements like file sharing, data preservation and basic asset trending.

From the outset, the Fluke development team identified three or four key target applications. One of those was the basic sharing that comes from the ShareLive functionality. Another was the ability to make a straightforward trend of measurements on a piece of machinery.

“There are two benchmarks that we compare against there. The easy benchmark is writing down data, taking it back and plotting it in an Excel spreadsheet. That’s pretty easy to meet,” says Heydron, because all of the time and steps involved in fulfilling it.

The difficult benchmark, on the other hand, is a clipboard with a pen attached to it that’s there at the measurement device every day, hanging beside it.

“All of the transit is gone. It’s right there,” says Heydron. “We kept pen and paper as the measurement benchmark. When you can create the graphical trend in the same time as a piece of paper, then we said, ‘That’s good, that’s where we need to be’.”

Even today, says Heydron, capturing a two-point trend might be easier with a piece of paper. A three-point trend might be easier this ways as well. By the time five points are reached, the graphical power of a computer begins to take over.

“We think we’re equal to, at least, pen and paper. And, more important, you can share a lot easier than with pen and paper. So you get a big benefit. It’s not just on your machine, it’s there with your team and without a lot of overhead or extra effort,” says Heydron.

One instrument family that directly benefits from Fluke Connect capability is the thermal imagers. Heydron cites an example of an errant reading to show how data sharing is important for these devices. In some cases all that’s provided to the technician is a voltage reading, such as 16.3 V, and the thermal image itself. If a technician calls in the troubling reading, Heydron says, all he can do is deliver the reading.

Fluke Connect is available on a wide variety of Fluke instruments, including multimeters and thermal imagers. The Connect app includes features like TrendIt, which lets users graph the data they gathered using the instruments’ built-in Bluetooth antenna. Images: Fluke Corp.The key piece of information is the image, which is difficult to convey over a phone call. A Fluke Connect-equipped thermal imager allows the technician to directly share the thermal image along with a visual of the reading. The imager is equipped with a large processor to handle imaging; sending that data via WiFi is quick and easy.

Advances in wireless
One of the technology factors that allowed Fluke to embrace wireless technology in its instruments was the advent of Bluetooth Low Energy (LE). Originally introduced in a Nokia telephone in 2006, it was merged into the Bluetooth standard in 2010 and has since entered new applications in a variety of industries, including health care and security.

The attraction of Bluetooth LE is tri-fold. It’s much less energy intensive than standard Bluetooth radios, allowing devices to operate for months at a time on a single button cell. All major operating systems, including Apple OS and Microsoft Windows, natively support the standard. Finally, Bluetooth LE uses the same 2.4-GHz radio frequencies as the standard antennas, which makes LE devices backwards compatible and allows dual-mode devices to share a single antenna.

Bluetooth LE requires half the current load as conventional Bluetooth and, depending on the application, Bluetooth LE can consume as little as 1% the energy.

“It uses very little power on both the phone side and Fluke instrument side,” says Bradey Honsinger, lead engineer for Fluke Connect. “Instruments that use Bluetooth LE are most often single-measurement tools, because they create data that is easy to transmit.”

At times, however, more data needs to be sent than Bluetooth LE can handle. Thermal imagers are a good example, and, in these cases, a WiFi connection should be made. Fluke has optimized the antennas in its tools to work well with the WiFi antennas in smartphones. This also helps the batteries last longer, because cellular 4G and LTE service is far more power intensive.

Range is another factor that Fluke considered when implementing the Connect system. According to Honsinger, 30 ft is the conservative range specification given by Fluke. This takes in account the fact that many of Fluke’s early Connect adopters will be working in an industrial environment where electrical interference, or non-line-of-sight instrument mounting, will be a factor in connectivity range.

The main reason for including clamp meters and thermometers in the initial Fluke Connect deployment is that they are ubiquitous. Wireless technology will benefit a large swath of customers. And, according to Heydron, these instruments are straightforward in terms of data content.

Building the user experience
While the technical side of wireless data transmission occupied much of Fluke’s development agenda, another factor that needed to be considered was user experience. The primary communication device, the smartphone, has already been optimized for this, but the standalone Connect application presented a new challenge. An instrument like a thermal imager or oscilloscope typically has its own display, optimized for the type of information that is being generated. But a smartphone must account for an almost limitless array of outputs. Recognizing the need to not swamp users with too much data on a small smartphone screen or rob them of valuable visuals, Honsinger and his team received the help of an outside design firm, Artefact Group, which developed attractive and sensible user interfaces.

This stage of development called for tests with individual customers and focus groups. Honsinger says Fluke also has user experience experts in-house, which helped optimize the graphical views. Hands-on feedback started with sketches and the process became a chain of continuous feedback with users. A handful of Fluke’s customers, says Heydron, have field experience with multiple generations of Fluke instrumentation. This depth of experience was advantageous to the Connect development team as it was optimizing. These users would see data output and tell the engineers what they assumed the data was communicating. A simple example is the output of three individual electrical measurements.

Going forward, Fluke has plans to expand its user interface optimization to include larger devices, such as tablets. For the moment, the system is designed for smartphones, the most portable of communication devices.

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