Tending the flock

Remote diagnostics lets you keep track of your machines wherever they end up. Machine builders and their customers are reaping the benefits of off-site dagnostics and troubleshooting.

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Bob Waterbury, Senior Editor
Ask an exhibitor at PackExpo, IMTS, or the Converting Show, among others, what sets his machine apart from the competitor across the aisle. Chances are that exhibitor will mention after sales service and support—including product and applications knowledge, training, documentation, spare parts, software and hardware upgrades, and diagnostics and troubleshooting assistance—as major difference.

In fact, suppliers and OEMs are beginning to recognize that service is an increasing contributor to the corporate bottom line. Downsizing and outsourcing are enabling manufacturing companies to concentrate on their core competencies. This is thinning the engineering ranks at customer manufacturing sites, however, and creating a growing need for outside diagnostic and troubleshooting expertise that can improve machine performance and maintainability—and overall customer profitability. Enter the OEM in an expanded role.
Opening Up to Remote Diagnostics
"If we provide a PC as part of our machine solution, we automatically include an industrially hardened modem and remote-access software to allow us to troubleshoot their equipment," says Ken Grimes, vice president of the manufacturing division, Carotek, Matthews, N.C., (www.carotek.com). "Likewise, if we provide a PLC, we'll include an industrially hardened modem that can be tied directly into the programming port of their PLC. Using a dedicated line, we can then call in and diagnose their system inexpensively.” The alternative may be $800-1,000 per day plus travel expenses to put an engineer on site. Furthermore, that remote diagnostic capability is not expensive. “We're talking about less than $300 total for hardware and software plus a few dollars for air time—for either a PC or PLC solution," says Grimes.

As a major machine buidler, rebuilder, and systems integrator to both discrete and process industries, Carotek even provides e-diagnostic, troubleshooting, and monitoring services to customers using machines from different builders. "If customers provide us access to the code, we can diagnose, troubleshoot, and even change machine operating parameters from our own offices—either via the web or dial-up line," says Grimes. "We also have a special support services group that operates under contract to perform calibration, repair, and troubleshooting of all types of industrial controls such as smart valve actuators and instruments beyond the brand labels that we commonly support. This is done both remotely and on-site per customer agreement."

One of Carotek's programmers was on a job recently when a call came in from a large distribution warehouse about four hours away. The distribution center had experienced a lightning strike that shut down nearly their entire operation, and wanted to know if the programmer could quickly get them running again. Because Carotek had installed a modem on their PC and PLC, the programmer was able to plug his laptop computer into a phone line and reload two essential drivers that put them back into business without further delay—saving them many thousands of dollars. 

"One of the things we've noticed is that software support is becoming so complex that end users are no longer able to do that themselves," says Grimes. “As a result, we sell remote diagnostic services on a scheduled basis to many different customers. It is a growing part of our business operations—and our bottom line."

Great Expectations
Today's machine shop can’t be satisfied with a fabricating center that simply punches holes in 15 mm metal or that cuts complex shapes in 18 mm plate. It needs a machine with a flexible controller that can interface with sophisticated CAD/CAM computers, run the latest software revision, and feed production data to plant-wide ERP or MES systems. And when trouble occurs, it needs a machine with built-in diagnostic tools to help resolve problems and minimize downtime.

Machine builder W.A. Whitney Co., (www.wawhitney.com), Rockford, Ill., known for its machine tool plate technology, is helping its customers achieve these benefits with an open CNC solution.

“When we set out to improve our 42-tool 3700 ATC punch/plasma fabricating center, we knew we needed to incorporate open architecture in the control scheme,” says Al Julian, marketing manager for punch/plasma fabricating machines at Whitney. “Open-architecture CNCs give us long-term flexibility for designing interfaces, for integration, and for remote diagnostics, which is exactly what fabrication shops demand.”

While CNCs have a reputation for long-term stability and reliability, even the best machines need service to maintain 95% or better uptime. In the past, that often meant a site visit for a service call. Now, with a modem card in the re-designed 3700 ATC and remote-access software installed, OEM technicians can access the fabricating centers’ data from across town or around the world at any end user site.

Whitney customers can equip the Open Factory CNC solution from GE Fanuc Automation (www.gefanuc.com) with remote-access software such as Symantec’s PCAnywhere. This software allows a technician in Rockford, Ill., or anywhere else with security clearance to dial in to the machine. Because the system is echoed onto the remote computer, the technician has access to all of the troubleshooting functionality built into the CNC, as well as tools normally available only at the OEM’s site. 

Once the diagnosis is complete, on-site maintenance personnel from the plant can generally complete repairs. The open architecture and remote-access software allow the CNC owner to take advantage of the OEM’s expertise without incurring transportation and lodging charges normally associated with a service call. More important, the fault can often be diagnosed and repaired, and the machine returned to service in less time than it might have taken the technician to pack and head out to the airport.

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