10 Years of Remote Support

Remote support and monitoring is the one area of machine control that has benefited the most from the Internet over the past decade.

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By Dan Hebert, PE, senior technical editor

This month, Mojo looks back on how that was done over the past 10 years, and it clearly illustrates how machine builders are using the Internet and high-speed data networks to improve remote machine management systems.

The Way It Was

When we addressed remote support in our September ’01 cover story, “Tending the Flock”, the technology was phone lines, modems, and remote access software. “If we provide a PC or a PLC as part of our machine solution, we automatically include an industrially hardened modem and remote access software to allow us to troubleshoot,” said Ken Grimes, manufacturing division VP at Carotek, Matthews, N.C.

You might have used phone lines, modems, and remote access software back then. You also might remember that trying to remotely monitor or troubleshoot a machine using these tools could be frustrating. “Many early remote access systems relied on off-the-shelf, terminal emulation packages that just passed screen pixels and mouse/keyboard commands back and forth,” remembers Steve Sabin, an engineer with GE Energy Optimization and Control.

GE Energy has a unique take on remote machine management because it’s one of the world’s largest machine builders. With the acquisition of Bently Nevada in 2002, GE Energy entered the remote machine monitoring business as one of the leading vendors.

“It was typical for users to wait for 60 seconds or more to move a screen across phone lines at phone line/modem transmission speeds,” adds Sabin. “Very few customers embraced the technology because, although the idea of moving data—not people—sounded great on paper, it was painfully slow in practice.”

Remote access technology limits shaped the market to one in which machine builders turned over machines to customers as soon as they could. “Historically, the customer assumed all responsibility for the machine’s operation and maintenance once it left the factory. The machine builder merely supplied the parts and labor expertise as required,” observes Sabin.

This arrangement caused friction. Customers wanted a machine that was always up and running, but the machine builders could make a nice profit from after-sales support and service once the typical one-year warranty expired. Clearly, change was needed.

Demanding a Solution

As manufacturers were shrinking their staffs throughout the ’90s, it became harder for them to run their plants. “Machinery customers began to approach machine builders with a different proposition,” recalls Sabin. “Many customers began to insist on buying a guaranteed ability to produce a given quantity of product over a period of time, rather than simply buying a machine.”

This change had profound repercussions within GE and many other machine builders. Many customers and machinery manufacturers began entering into contractual service agreements, stipulating the machine builder would retain substantial responsibility for the machine after it left the factory. After-sales support was no longer a potential source of profit, it was instead a cost to be driven down to the lowest possible level. Both the machine builder and the customer now have the same goal: keep the machine up and running at maximum capacity.

Fortunately, remote machine management technology was catching up with customer demands and machine builder needs.

Enter the Internet

Initially, only a few brave souls experimented with remote access via the Internet. In fact, a subheading in the September ’01 cover story describing web access dared readers to be different, and it described how a packaging machine builder was dipping its toes in the Internet pond.

Hooper Engineering of Sarasota, Fla., talked about its PLC-based embedded web server. “Not only does embedding this device in our machines put us above the competition functionally and diagnostically, but it allows remote access to machine functions and data—without any special programming,” said John Ford, Hooper’s president.

Later, we reported regular evidence of the growing use of high-speed data transmission. Here are two examples. Mark Gentry, controls and communications manager at Samuel Jackson Inc., speculated in our March ’04 article, “Facts and Fears About Web Browsers” (ControlDesign.com/browsers), that, “In another 10 years, most industrial control communications will be via Ethernet. While the cost of hardware is greater, the labor savings more than make that cost.”

Francois Broche, chief controls engineer at Southern Engineering & Automation, added in the “Be Everywhere” cover story, August ’05 (ControlDesign.com/everywhere), “The simplicity of remote condition monitoring over the Internet gives us an edge over a standalone machine. It lets us offer an affordable service contract because we can proactively keep the machine operating without flying to the customer’s location. It’s better marketing through science.”

The Internet not only created an easy and inexpensive way to communicate, but also spawned the growth of international high-speed data networks. Instead of a phone/modem connection, it now was possible to establish a high-bandwidth Internet connection in any location worldwide.

DSL, cable modems, broadband-over-power-line, satellite, and wireless were and are a few of the options available for establishing high-speed Internet connectivity. “Browser technology extended the availability of remote machine data to a much broader range of individuals without requiring special software, special communications settings, or a new user interface,” observes Sabin. “It also allowed access to the data from a home computer using only a standard browser, thanks to virtual private networking (VPN) technologies that allow secure corporate network environments via the Internet.”

Just about every packaged HMI software solution supports server/browser access, and so do other automation components like programmable automation controllers. “We use web pages in the controller to monitor, and let our customers know the status of pumps, filters, valves, alarms, and holding tanks,” says Robert Holman, chief engineer at Automation & Controls Engineering, Minneapolis.

Holman’s firm makes systems that recover gas and oil from groundwater. His company uses open architecture automation controllers from SoftPLC. “Our customers can access the controller web pages via a browser to get instant updates or trigger a report,” says Holman. “Reports or fault information can also be sent from the controller via e-mail on a daily basis. Under password control, the end user can control the pumps and make some other system adjustments via a browser.”

Gather the Experts

Internet server/browser technology and high-speed data networks have made remote machine management more cost-effective, easier to use, and ubiquitous. This changed the way machine builders and their customers monitor their machines.

In the past millennium, an expert had to be dispatched to a site to fix the machine. A machine builder, its customer, or both needed lots of experts ready to travel the world at a moment’s notice. Nowadays, it’s possible to centralize expertise at remote machine monitoring centers.

Machine builders and customers alike can create machine monitoring centers now. Gathering expertise in one location to monitor multiple machines yields more benefits than just saving money and time. “When a machine builder or their customer can monitor a fleet of machines from a centralized location staffed with specialists, trends of entire populations of similar machines can be ascertained. This allows maintenance and operating discoveries to be made that can benefit all machines of a similar type, something not possible when a machine is monitored in isolation from its peers,” adds Sabin.

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