Remote Diagnostics: Machine Support Takes to the Internet

Machine Builders Have Difficulty Finding Competent Automation Support

By Joe Feeley

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Joe FeeleyAs Control Design celebrates its 15th anniversary, we bring you a look back at some of the topics we have covered and that have generated the most discussion among our machine builder and integrator audience. This article is part of our June 2012 cover story, "We Celebrate 15 Years."

 

For years, after-sales support posed unique problems for machine builders. It could be a lucrative gross revenue source, and it could be enormously expensive to execute.

As builders commissioned machines all over the country and all over the world, finding competent automation support could be a challenge. It often meant lots of frequent flier miles and a short-staffed home office with all the tech support out on the road. Machine users had trimmed technical support and relied more on the builders for help.

In addition, machine builders had been yanked from the security and knowledge about their own, often proprietary controllers into the Wild West of open, standards-based architectures that required new skill sets and difficult growing pains. There didn't seem to be anything in it for them.

We reported that it all started to change toward the end of our first 10 years in 2007 when the ability to remotely monitor, configure or even control machines moved from minimally helpful phone modem connection speed to the web as digital buses, industrial Ethernet, Internet protocols, fat pipes and VPN tunneling turbocharged new possibilities.

The results of an audience poll we presented early in 2009 confirmed both progress and a lot of work yet to be done. While 44% of the respondents said they provided some degree of web-based monitoring on machines, another 29% said customers wouldn't let them through the firewall, and 17% said they couldn't make the value-proposition argument fly.

Benefits Outweigh Risks
In an April 2009 OEM Insight column, "It's VPN for 24/7," Chris Roach, vice president of customer service and support at FKI Logistex (since bought by Intelligrated) in St. Louis, made his support of remote access pretty clear. "When there is a problem—or, preferably, when a problem can be addressed before it matures into failure of a mission-critical system—the best solution is often to allow individual OEMs access to their installations through secure, remote-access VPNs," he wrote.

He also noted, "Despite the encrypted protection that VPNs can offer, the question remains: 'Who gets the keys to the castle?' The integrity of the global supply chain rests on the integrity of everyone who interfaces with it; so who do you trust?"

Roach argued, "It's become clear that, with the acceptance of Cisco-encrypted VPNs, there is another solution. There is an increased trust in software and networks that hasn't existed before. Instead of hiding behind firewalls and login procedures, we should take advantage of the constant stream of encrypted data. A partnership with a trusted, qualified and authorized OEM has the benefits of security, trust and 24/7 monitoring services. The high level of complexity in today's systems and the need for constant uptime now can be matched with secure access through VPNs. The pipeline of information can be kept wide open, with constant access to data."

Later, in our June 2009 issue, we learned how a few builders approached the security issue in "PC Access Could Invite Hackers."

MoCo Engineering & Fabrication in Spokane Valley, Wash., builds lumber-handling equipment, and it also implements remote-access security via manual customer interaction. "We offer a remote access option to our customers," noted Loren Wernecke, electrical and hydraulic manager. "It's a web port device that uses open VPN tunnel technology, and the customer has to provide Internet access. Once the tunnel is created, MoCo can connect to any Ethernet device on the private side of the web port as if they were onsite."

Fewer Resources, Better Service
In our November 2010 issue, "Machine Tools on the Internet," by Markus Schmolz, manager at Schwäbische Werkzeugmaschinen (SW), machine tool manufacturer in Schramberg-Waldmössingen, Germany, detailed his company's comprehensive monitoring services that gather and report machine lifecycle cost data for its customers.

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