Remote monitoring technology is not new. However, due to technological advancements (e.g., open systems, wireless technology, smart manufacturing devices, high-speed network connections, etc.) over the past several years, the ability to remotely manage and monitor critical automation and control systems in real time has come to the forefront as a secure and cost-effective means for manufacturers to improve operational efficiency and tap off-site resources for additional production support.
Off-site remote service support can handle a variety of tasks and services. These include incident management, system backup and recovery, data analysis and retrieval, software updates and patches, real-time monitoring of software and systems, and online automation and system programming. Table 1 highlights additional key advantages.
Table 1: A trusted remote off-site team provides several key advantages.
Now, let’s look at what operational challenges in-house teams face on a day-to-day basis, and how adding off-site third-party expert resources can help reduce automation and control system downtime through applying remote management and monitoring techniques.
In today’s competitive world, manufacturers are having to transition from their traditional systems to more modern tools and strategies. Oftentimes, however, they find it increasingly difficult to justify, recruit and train automation personnel on new system upgrades or infrastructure. They also face workforce attrition and retirement, which places additional tasks on personnel who already have heavy workloads. They simply do not have the bandwidth or, in some instances, level of experience to effectively diagnose system failures or deal with the daily process issues that arise leading to the potential for equipment failure and downtime.
To help ease the load, external remote management and monitoring teams provide specialized operational knowledge to help with automation and control system issues. Typically, legacy and new systems alike require original equipment manufacturer (OEM) expertise and support. However, due to equipment obsolescence, few OEMs are supporting the spare parts manufacturers source for their legacy systems.
Based on your manufacturing facility requirements, a platform-independent third-party automation solutions provider has operational expertise on a mix of hardware and software platforms, working with OEMs directly. Depending on the project, they can deliver application support services and production optimization solutions, while helping to remotely maintain, continuously improve and prevent automation and control issues from happening.
Managing the Unexpected
Despite system or procedural warnings, situations can and do arise when manufacturers least expect it, especially during the weekend, evening, holiday or vacation hours. Oftentimes, a manufacturer’s in-house team can handle many of the day-to-day automation and control issues that come up if given enough time. However, who do you call when the unexpected happens and staff resources are stretched thin or unavailable?
At any time, automation hardware and software issues (e.g., malfunctioning control valves, faulty wiring, poor process loop performance, control system and software updates, data recovery and more) can quickly escalate and cause facility downtime, safety risks and increased operational costs. How long it takes your in-house team to respond is critical to personnel safety and the manufacturing facility.
During these times, a third-party remote management and monitoring application support team can work with in-house personnel to:
- ensure 24/7/365 immediate response and proactive support
- identify, diagnose and debug automation equipment issues (e.g., server failures; malfunctioning control valves) before they disrupt production
- identify and monitor key parameters that typically indicate most failures. Examples include hard disk usage, percentage of utilized memory, warnings generated by the automation system, 24/7 network data and information related to equipment operation such as vibration parameters, temperature readings, etc.
- diagnose, interpret and communicate current system code issues
- monitor faults and processors
- monitor network usage and connectivity
- perform daily routine system checks
- help get production going again more quickly after equipment failure
- help perform routine system backups so operational improvements are captured and preserved
- supervise software updates and patches for cybersecurity protection
- monitor key alarms
Now that we’ve looked at some challenges and how working with external remote teams can help resolve automation application issues, how do manufacturers choose the right partner and move past any uncertainties or fears about their intellectual property?
Documentation Is Key
As with any contractual agreement between parties, it all comes down to good documentation. Before the team lead signs on the dotted line, consider the following items when looking for and working with a trusted platform-independent third-party automation solutions provider or systems integrator:
Safety – Before starting any project, both the manufacturer and remote partner need to be aware of all safety policies and procedures. Any tasks can be performed in-house or remotely, with manufacturers making decisions based on their speciﬁc circumstances. When remote changes are made to a facility’s systems, both parties should follow precautionary measures to mitigate safety risks and ensure the working environment remains safe at all times.
Security – Manufacturers should have good security policies in place and use best practices when working with secure setups across the enterprise. Depending on where the remote monitoring will be performed, a manufacturer’s highly-qualified IT personnel needs to ensure a secure location to protect IP.
They must also ensure safe and secure remote firewall access to systems, giving unique access via username and passwords to the third-party solutions provider. Security coverage to prevent hackers is a two-way street in remote set ups, so high priority should be placed on it from both sides of the firewall.
Flexibility / Customization – Being able to have the flexibility to customize and make changes on the fly is nice, but upfront planning to prevent surprises from happening ultimately keeps costs from escalating later. Engaging a third-party partner early on in a project is key, as they become more familiar with your platforms, as well as intimately knowledgeable about your specific product manufacturing process. Ideally, they can help write the process code needed for any future programming changes.
Chain of Command – Ensure both teams have the proper escalation protocols – a point of contact and knowledgeable staff available that can escalate issues for resolution. This is where on-call, 24/7/365 third-party remote operation teams are extremely important in off hours.
Project Tracking – Find someone who is flexible to your needs and will utilize some form of ticketing system for tracking calls and issuing reports. It is important to document every call and incident for archiving purposes and historical recall.
Costs – Cost is always a major factor for any business. If the remote services deliver a positive return on investment (ROI), then the benefits exceed costs for process improvements. A cost savings can also be realized when you reduce the amount of in-house personnel having to perform or be trained on critical automation tasks, which limits disruptions to their daily operational routines. Another factor to consider is the potential cost associated with system failure or downtime, resulting in lost production and product quality. Can you really afford to have a full-time employee “on call” solely to field potential problems that arise? Proactive third-party remote management and monitoring handles the problems for you and can prevent any safety lapses and increase efficiency saving costs in the long run.
The right third-party partner can be a major advantage for manufacturers who want to use the latest remote management and monitoring tools and techniques as part of their day-to-day routine. A trusted partner will answer any questions to remove any uncertainty and doubt from the process. A platform-independent automation solutions provider can provide unbiased remote management and monitoring experience for a range of products and technologies to keep facility operations up and running 24/7/365.
As an example of remote monitoring in action, see the case study Corn Sweetener Facility Enhances Product Quality through Loop Performance Optimization.