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With new 4G technology and cellphone apps, cellular connections now rival the speed of hardwired connections. This new equivalence is encouraging industrial machine and robot builder OEMs to use cellphones for remote access, both via browser and apps."I do design work for several machine builders," says Matt Youney, owner of Youney Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineering in Lake Worth, Fla. "I have projects deployed all over the world. This morning, I was making updates to a semiconductor die-handler machine in Switzerland while drinking my coffee in Florida. With remote access, my customers can't tell if I am in my office, or on my sailboat in the Florida Keys."
Welcome to the new world of industrial telecommuting. Remote access to machines and robots has been available for at least 20 years now. It started with dial-up phone service from an OEM's home office to a customer site. It graduated to hardwired Ethernet/Internet connections, and now cellular technology and smartphones make it possible to work from just about anywhere.
"As a contractor without remote access, I wouldn't be able to do my job efficiently," Youney reports. "My customer base would be limited to local customers, most of which moved abroad in the past 10 years. I need these tools to compete in the global economy, and hopping on a plane to fight a fire is really a last resort." For more on how Youney works remotely, see "Machine Control From a Sailboat."
Dan McGarry, IT administrator at Komax Solar in York, Pa., agrees with Youney. "We have customers all around the world, and by using a remote solution we save time and money by providing instant support from our headquarters to any of our customers' locations," he explains. "No travel time is needed, and there's a minimum impact on customer uptime, very important in the competitive solar-panel-producing market." Komax produces custom-built machines for the solar industry, specializing in thin-film and crystalline technologies.
Although everyone we spoke to for this article praised the benefits of remote access, there appear to be some different preferences on whether to use the hardwired or cellular connections. Komax, for example, prefers the hardwired links provided in a Phoenix Contact solution. "The remote connectivity is a hardware VPN," McGarry explains. "It doesn't route through an HMI or PLC; it just goes from router to router via Internet VPN. We use a web browser interface to interact with machines from HQ, and use the remote connection to upload PLC updates, monitor the HMI, and make adjustments to the programming. In the event that a customer has an issue, we use the VPN to check machine status and determine if a technician must be sent out."Prism Systems, a system integrator in Mobile, Ala., builds control systems for clients around the globe. "Many of our projects are either very complex or are in locations with limited local support," says Keith Jones, principal at Prism. "These systems present support challenges, especially when your office and the customer's site are on different continents."
Prism uses security modules to connect to PLCs over Ethernet. "The platform allows us to use one module at our office, and connect to a maximum of 128 remote devices," Jones reports. "This definitely has changed the way we handle support, making overseas work more manageable." For more on how this works, see "Secure Access."
On the other hand, Joel Froese, owner/operator of Red Bank Hydro in West Columbia, S.C., likes to use his cellphone for remote access. "A remote HMI app from AutomationDirect allows me to check the status of the machinery at our hydroelectric plant from my iPhone even when I am away from my computer," he explains. "I feel the future has arrived as I can even start up or shut down the plant from the road."
Although some remote access systems are extremely expensive, the iPhone app is dirt cheap, Froese says. "The HMI screen scales perfectly to the iPhone screen in any orientation, and built-in safety features ensure that I don't accidentally push the wrong button, so it's well worth the $4.99 price."
App access is cheap, but smartphone browser-based access is free, so why use an app? "We already had browser access to this information through the built-in web server in the HMI," Froese explains. "But the iPhone app now allows us to control the plant via the on-screen buttons, so we can now start up and shut down the system just as if we were standing in front of the HMI."
Froese says remote browser access gives him a snapshot of the HMI screens, and is valuable for monitoring the plant from any computer or other Internet-connected device. "The iPhone app, on the other hand, gives us a live view of the screens, meaning we can see monitored variable change in nearly real time," he says. "However, the larger difference between browser access and the iPhone app is that browser access is by definition read-only, while the app allows us to push buttons and spin dials, controlling the plant remotely."
Mark Gentry, an engineer at Samuel Jackson, a builder of moisture control systems in Lubbock, Texas, says remote access is very important for his company's business. "For remote connectivity, we use an on-demand VPN connection," he says. "Our technical staff can access customer sites from any Internet connection, and our customers can access their own plants using the same VPN from anywhere, including their iPhone (Figure 1)."