Remote Access: No Travel Required

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

By Dan Hebert

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."

Lopez was connected with a ControlSoft process engineer, who assisted them using TeamViewer software. "He was able to access the control system remotely and participate in the bump tests and process model evaluations," Lopez explains. "This allowed him to identify and correct our PID scaling factors, which had been the cause of our initial invalid numbers."

Saving time and travel expenses is a major benefit of remote access. For Nor Cal Controls, it meant the company didn't have to wait for an expert from ControlSoft to travel to the site.

Glenn Givens, principal at Givens Control Engineering, a system integrator in Burlington, Ontario, says he used remote access to avoid traveling to "a location where my personal safety could not be guaranteed," as he puts it. "Using a VNC connection, we quickly discovered a major roadblock that halted the project for months. Had I traveled there, I would have found out after one day that there was no point in staying, and the travel costs would have been extremely wasteful."

And when there is a problem with the control system, remote access allows the vendor to help out. "At another customer site, we called the DCS vendor for assistance, and they logged in via VNC to find and correct the problem," Givens says. "The person with whom we communicated logs in to customer sites all day, full-time in his technical support role."

Global system integrator Maverick Technologies, headquartered in Columbia, Ill., leverages remote access to service clients and ease internal work. "In addition to the more mature areas like wireless tank gauging, SCADA and other remote concepts, we've made heavy use of the PC's remote access capabilities on newer control systems," says Chad Harper, Maverick's director of technology. "Internally, we utilize remote access to our internal development PLCs and DCSs, which allows for expanded capabilities in training and project support. We have several clients where we perform project and maintenance work directly in their control system through dedicated PC-to-PC connections. We also provide network monitoring services for clients who have too many remote facilities to support adequately in person."

Meanwhile, Malisko Engineering, a system integrator in St. Louis, has used remote access for 10 years, so it's in a good position to summarize its advantages. "Remote access to industrial automation systems has proven to be an extremely cost-effective component of a plant's support system," says Dan Malyszko, senior systems engineer. "Getting a process line back up and running in minutes rather than hours by giving technical support resources via remote access can help a plant avoid thousands of dollars of downtime. Another benefit is reduced costs when making control system programming changes. Depending on the nature of the programming change request, travel costs can be eliminated entirely when performing the work via remote access."

Challenges Can Thwart Remote Access
Two major and related challenges face engineers who want to employ remote access: security concerns and their own IT departments.

Hackers are getting so good these days, they can penetrate a control system through any port — including even the maintenance port of a UPS. Users need to be very careful. That's where the IT department comes in, for better or worse. "Due to NERC/CIP requirements, we're seeing some of our customers moving us to a secure VPN, only allowing access to PCs a layer removed from the control network," says Lopez of Nor Cal Controls. "While still extremely helpful, it's less functional than being directly connected to the control system."

In some cases, bypassing the corporate IT system is the best option. "In one operation where we could not access the analyzers from the corporate network due to IT policy, we installed a phone line and a modem directly in the analyzer cabinet for dial-up access," says Dave Taylor, system engineer at Process Engineering Resources (PERI) in Salt Lake City. The company makes X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers for the mining/mineral processing industry. The analyzers are used to perform elemental analysis of slurries in ore concentrator operations, often in remote areas that are difficult and time-consuming to reach, so remote access is crucial for providing timely support.

Or you can have your system integrator or control system vendor take care of it. "Our primary remote access technology is via a secured VPN connection using a Cisco adaptive security appliance or similar hardware," Malisko Engineering's Malyszko says. "Oftentimes, we procure, install and configure VPN hardware for our clients as an option to the base cost of a project."

James Burnand, director of the Mid-Atlantic region for Grantek Systems Integration, uses remote access technology from several vendors, and he advises limiting remote access to just the control system. "To maintain strict control of remote access, it's best to keep automation and control protocols at home in the manufacturing zone. Limiting the protocols to this zone helps ensure that the automation and control devices are communicating with known devices and applications, with user authentication and role-based authorization."

Apart from security issues, other disadvantages of remote access include slow display updates over wireless connections, loss of communications at critical times, and the need to use a PC or PAC that supports Windows-based software and Ethernet connections.

In spite of these disadvantages, end users are climbing aboard the remote access bandwagon faster than they've adopted any other technology we can remember. Today, any company that doesn't offer remote access to its automation systems is behind the times.

Optimize Operations From Afar

AOC Resins is a global supplier of resins, gel coats, colorants and systems for composites and cast polymers. It has seven process plants located across North America, all of which are accessed remotely from corporate headquarters in Collierville, Tenn. "We have a small group of experts to maintain and improve our systems," says Danny Cox, director of engineering. "This has proven much more effective and less expensive than having these functions at each location. We're also able to ensure that production standards are the same at each site. When we're speaking with a remote site about an issue, we're both looking at the same screen."

Control systems at each site are based on Emerson Process Management's DeltaV systems and PLCs with T1 connections over a VPN to all facilities. The engineers connect to each process through a VPN, using tools such as Remote Desktop, iTap and pcAnywhere. "We're able to access the system via PCs, tablets and even smartphones," Cox says.

AOC prefers the wired T1 connection to wireless. "When the connection is wireless, the speed can be an issue for complex screen updates," Cox explains. "Navigation and screen size can make the use of tablets and smartphones difficult. However, being able to connect quickly, anywhere, any time is a big plus. We connect via iPads and iPhones thru the VPN, using thin-client arrangements."

When using a thin client, licenses from Microsoft and Emerson are required. "We dedicate at least one license for corporate use at all sites," Cox explains. "Other licenses are available to plant personnel. We have browser access, using third-party graphical interface tools as well."

Remote access has simplified life for engineers. In a batch operation, certain events only happen once per batch. In the past, engineers would come in at odd hours, or work very long hours to see these events. "With remote technologies, we're better at optimizing processes," Cox says. "Engineers can periodically check status and make adjustments from anywhere."

This is an excerpted version of the article "Remote Access Goes Mainstream" that first appeared in Control in April 2012.