Survivor: Industrial OEM style

CONTROL DESIGN Columnist Jeremy Pollard, CET, wonders what most of us would do if our businesses were interrupted -- seriously interrupted -- by something that stopped us from doing our daily work.

Embedded IntelligenceBy Jeremy Pollard, CET, Columnist

IT FINALLY happened. I took a vacation to Cuba, which is not a typical destination for those of you in the U.S. It really is as close to a Third-World country as you can get.

You might remember when I wrote about the Mobi solution, which allows me to access my computer remotely. Cuba has Internet access, so I figured I was set. Not so fast, hombre. My Internet connection seemed slower than dialup, if that’s possible, and it was very inconsistent when it technically was working.

This made me more than a little nervous. Can you do without your e-mail for a week? After mucho cervezas, I wondered what most of us would do if our businesses were interrupted by something that stopped us from doing our daily work.

My worries were exacerbated by recent news about avian/bird flu. The metrics which the experts throw around are staggering. I did a little research, and it appears the Canadian and U.S. governments are not taking this potential threat lightly.

It seems the best medicine if this flu explodes is staying at home. Ouch! How can we do that? Toronto suffered through SARS two years ago. I knew people in the medical biz, who were quarantined due to contact with carriers. However, they could just as easily have made contact with those carriers on the subway, in a Starbucks, or at some other work or gathering place.

What would you do if local authorities shut down public transit and public buildings, or otherwise essentially closed your city? In fact, New York’s mass transit system recently closed for a couple of days due to a labor dispute, while much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still recovering from last year’s hurricanes.  

"I wondered what most of us would do if our businesses were interrupted by something that stopped us from doing our daily work."

The problem with Toronto and SARS was that, while Toronto had the problem, most everywhere else in the universe (or at least the Western Hemisphere) didn’t have it. Should the city have been declared a hazard (which the World Health Organization did by putting Toronto on its ‘do not disturb’ list)? If so, then locally we have a problem.

Does a customer in Los Angeles care when his process is delayed because software isn’t getting developed by a Toronto group? Perhaps not so much, if development can continue using solutions such as Mobi.

What about an industrial OEM in Houston, who needs parts from a Toronto supplier who can’t ship because FedEx can’t get into a building to pick up the parts. This problem is tougher since it deals with more physical issues. A contingency here might simply be moving more available inventory while you still can.

Planning and agility will win the day, such as moving your premises, having your own shipping means, or pre-ordering materials. In most cases, you’ll have some time to prepare.

I’ve written before about managing risk. So, how do we manage this potential issue in the increasingly global sandbox of machine automation and controls? The answer is that we can’t do everything remotely.

I was in Houston in 1988 when Hurricane Gilbert headed into the Gulf. The contingency for managing the risk of no power for up to five days was to move the office to Dallas. For a 10-person company this is feasible. For 100+ people, it might not be. Suggested ‘planning’ for all this comes from all over the world. The main focus of the rhetoric is about major business units such as stock markets and banking.

So how are you going to do it? I made a presentation at the ISA conference in October on mobile security that could have been titled “What options are there for a pandemic response?” The Mobi solution is an obvious choice for me. It allows me to service any of my customers from any Internet-connected computer. I don’t need client software installed like PCAnywhere. If you’re in a fixed location and security is not an issue, then GoToMyPC could be a viable option. VNC is an open-source option, but it requires some planning for client install. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can work by using Remote Desktop Protocol or something similar, but these also need planning.

All of these solutions require that the target PC you need to access—to, in turn, deliver services to your customers—be identified to the remote client. This also requires prior planning. The time is now. Which solution to use is up to you, but remember, if the PLC programmer isn’t allowed to go the office, then no one else will be either. You’ve heard me say this before. Be Prepared. Evaluate. Investigate. You have to for your own survival.

  About the Author
Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Publisher of The Software User ONLINE, he has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 20 years. Browse to www.tsuonline.com or e-mail him at jpollard@tsuonline.com.
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