Remote Access: No Travel Required

One of the Fastest-Growing and Most Quickly Accepted New Technologies to Hit Control Systems

By Dan Hebert

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New automation industry technologies seem to have a consistent path from inception to adoption. First, suppliers and research organizations tout the technology as a game-changer, a paradigm shift, a must-have — pick your cliché. Media outlets such as this one write about the new technology, but we are skeptical, as are prospective customers.

If some potential users and/or system integrators see possible competitive advantage, then these early adopters will try out the technology to find out if the benefits outweigh the costs. Simultaneously, suppliers fight it out to establish their proprietary technology as the standard. If end users determine the technology delivers promised benefits and required rates of return with acceptable risk, and if suppliers agree on standards and interoperability, then the technology is widely adopted.

Remote access has traversed this path successfully in the process industries, proceeding from supplier promotion to widespread end-user adoption in less than 10 years. How do we know? Because a host of end users and system integrators are eager to share remote access success stories, as you'll find here.

Competitive Advantage
There are many ways to skin the remote access cat. Remote access has no standards-making organization touting its capabilities. It's not proprietary, and there isn't widespread agreement on how to accomplish it, yet it's growing at a breakneck pace. When something comes along that is truly useful and beneficial, end users jump on it.

Sukup Manufacturing, based in Sheffield, Iowa, makes grain-handling equipment such as bins, dryers (Figure 1) and conveying equipment. The company redesigned the control system on its QuadraTouch continuous-flow dryers using a PLC with Ethernet communications, says Matt Koch, electrical engineer at Sukup.

"We offer optional global system for mobile communications (GSM) functionality so that our customers can keep an eye on dryer operations from any cellphone," Koch says. "The GSM modem provides this add-on functionality. The PLC is already set up to connect to the modem, so all we have to do is simply plug the modem into the serial port of the PLC and activate service onto a SIM card to realize instant GSM functionality."

Remote access and other automation helped McCall Farms, a manufacturer of Southern-style foods in Effingham, S.C., to triple in size over the past five years to more than 250+ million pounds of produce per year.

Jeff Crisp, maintenance manager at McCall Farms, uses a wide range of PC-based remote access technologies that enable him to access process equipment (Figure 2) remotely from different plant buildings, from his phone and from home, if there's an urgent need to do so. "I can securely and easily dial into plant systems from my house in order to troubleshoot," he says. "Using our PC-based control systems, I can watch any process in the plant run from my office."

Access from home is via a virtual network computing (VNC) server. "If something must be fixed in the middle of the night," Crisp explains, "this is a very attractive option."

There is no overwhelmingly popular method for remote access — process automation professionals are using software technologies such as phone dialing systems, cellphone messaging systems, virtual private networks (VPNs), VNC and various PC-based software programs that allow remote users to view and even control PCs at the local site.

Remote Access Fuels Success
It seems everybody in the process industry is using remote access in one way or another, for a variety of purposes ranging from equipment diagnostics to optimizing control systems.

Nor Cal Controls ES, a system integrator in Placerville, Calif., used remote access to solve a similar problem with unfamiliar software. "Recently, we were in the process of providing balance-of-plant tuning for AEP at one of its new power plants," says Bob Lopez, control engineer at Nor Cal. "We purchased ControlSoft's PID tuning software, but because of our unfamiliarity with the software and the GE ICS PID controllers, our process models were generating tuning values that were completely off in magnitude."

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