Remote Service via VPN

Secure VPN Tunneling Implementation Enables Machine Builder to Provide Robust Remote Technical Support to Its Pharmaceutical and Cosmetics Customers

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by Stefan Winzinger, groninger USA

One of the characteristics of a world-class machine builder is taking care of its customers after the sale. This means service engineers often have to travel to customer sites to repair what turn out to be relatively minor problems. At other times, the engineers spend countless hours on the phone explaining technical fixes to customers.

When access to machines at customer sites is limited, providing excellent technical support is a challenge. The technical aspects of providing customer support are typically not at issue since no one knows the machines better than the builder.

Taking care of its customers is a key imperative for groninger USA. A wholly owned subsidiary of groninger & co. GmbH in Germany, groninger USA, calls Charlotte, N.C., home for its primary North American manufacturing and service facility. The company designs and manufactures fill and finish processing lines for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries (Figure 1). Since its formation in 1980, groninger has installed more than 3,000 machines globally, and more than 500 machines in North America.

groninger packaging machine
Figure 1: This groninger packaging machine installed at a customer’s facility is connected back to groninger’s regional service office via a VPN router.

Spread Too Thin

“The challenge to provide excellent after-sales service can stem from spreading technical resources too thin because of required travel time and the inefficiency of telephone support,” says Uwe Klaus, service team leader. “If we could limit travel and phone time and focus on the actual technical issues, our engineers could support more customers and address more issues in less time. We felt that modern communication technologies could help us to provide better support to more customers without overextending our internal technical resources.”

In short, we wanted modern communications technologies that would allow us to securely and quickly perform remote diagnosis and troubleshooting over the Internet.

A VPN Solution
Our company developed Remote Video Service (RVS), which provides a customer-initiated secure virtual private network (VPN) connection between a machine at the customer’s facility and groninger’s secure internal service network. We use a VPN network address translation (NAT) router on both the customer and groninger service network sides to initiate and maintain a secure encrypted VPN connection. See the sidebar titled “What’s a VPN?” for further definition and explanation.

Remote Video Service is offered as an option when purchasing a new machine, or an upgrade for existing machines with Ethernet capability. The remote service function allows groninger to provide better support to more of our customers.

Remote Video Service Operation
“If a customer has a technical problem with a machine, he or she can call the regional groninger service office in Charlotte,” Klaus explains. “The groninger engineer on duty will ask the customer to initiate a VPN connection by operating a key switch. A VPN tunnel then connects the customer to that regional groninger service office through the Internet. At the service office, the VPN tunnel connects with the groninger internal service network (Figure 2). This is a secure network that connects all groninger service offices. This secure configuration allows the engineer on duty in Charlotte as well as groninger specialists in Germany to access the VPN tunnel to the customer.”

VPN tunnel
Figure 2: A VPN tunnel connects the customer to the regional groninger service office through the Internet. This secure configuration allows the engineer on duty in Charlotte as well as groninger specialists in Germany to access the VPN tunnel to the customer.”

The machine network—which can include PLCs, HMI, servo controllers, and other Ethernet devices—is at the customer’s end of the VPN tunnel. The services engineers and specialists at groninger can access these devices to see live program status, make changes if necessary, backup and/or restore programs, create new recipes, and provide machine or software updates or revisions. Here are the tasks that can be performed with the remote service function:

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