Remote Machine Support Must Be Everywhere

Remote monitoring, analysis, support and control is getting more routine and secure, more comprehensive in its scope and capabilities, and may even gather enough data to improve machine designs

By Jim Montague

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Can't work everyplace at once? Better find a way.

Manufacturers demand 24/7 uptime and system availability, but that means machine builders and support technicians must be ready at a moment's notice to maintain, troubleshoot and repair practically every machine they've ever sold in hundreds if not thousands of locations scattered worldwide.

While human cloning isn't practical yet for machine builders and other stressed-out professionals to make all the copies they need of themselves, there are other helpful tools they can employ to get in front of all the equipment they must maintain. Remote monitoring, support and even control are offering more varied and sophisticated capabilities for accessing machines and production lines from a distance and then examining, troubleshooting, repairing and upgrading them so users need not go to each physical location.

More recently, rather than communicating via old-fashioned modems or asking for permission to access virtual private networks (VPNs), the newest remote-support methods enable builders and technicians to service protected versions of a machine’s operating data and software, which are delivered to virtual, cloud-based services that don’t require users and their IT staffs to permit access to their internal networks.

Also Read: Everything That Rises: The Convergence Between Control Systems and Asset-Management Systems Is Inevitable

For instance, Tornos in Moutier, Switzerland, builds Swiss-type lathes and other equipment, such as its six-axis SwissNano CNC machine. It uses bar stock to manufacture wristwatch, medical and dental device parts up to just 4 mm wide and 28 mm long with a precision of ±1 micron. Where watchmakers traditionally used several cam-driven lathes to make their tiny parts, two-year-old SwissNano can make 85% of typical watch parts in a footprint that's only 600 mm wide but contains a multi-spindle lathe with two rotating tool positions and 12 total positions (Figure 1). Tornos also has a subsidiary company, Almac, which builds milling machines based on SwissNano's frame.

"Companies were not making the old cam-operated machines anymore because they were so costly to build, and so the watch industry wanted a new, different type of machine with counter-spindles mounted on three axes, so they could get better centering and alignments. Watch makers also wanted more tools, easier access, and simple presets to switch out worn tools," says Paul Cassella, applied technology manager for Tornos Technologies US in Lombard, Illinois. "The watch industry previously used some CNCs, so we developed SwissNano with Fanuc Oi-TD CNC controls, chucks from Rohm, vacuum parts recovery and six pneumatic lines for grippers and other functions."

However, because Tornos deployments to users like Rolex and other watchmakers are growing along with the recent resurgence of the industry, it needed a better way to keep tabs on its machines in the field. So, about a year ago, Tornos launched its Tisis machine communication system, which transfers 2D and 3D CAD/CAM designs to its machines, selects tools and checks on their programs and operating status. Tisis uses a small, password-protected Web server integrated into its machines, communicates via VPN, Internet protocol (IP) and even Wi-Fi, and delivers HTML-based displays to PCs and tablets.

"Users can remotely organize parts databases, set production rates to run machines overnight, monitor their machines from home and receive preset alerts and alarms," says Cassella. "Besides using passwords, we also rely on Wi-Fi's native encryption for added security. Though it's not part of Tisis, we also use TeamServer software to access users' VPNs with their permission, take control of our remote machines and go into their CNC controls to solve most problems."

A few years ago, remote access was just about monitoring machines, says Sal Conti, remote monitoring product manager in Rockwell Automation's Remote Support Services division. "Now it's allowing machine builders and users to deploy their best engineers anywhere at any time, doing it a lot less expensively, gaining data for much better proactive maintenance and letting technicians know what they'll be facing and what they need before going into the field," he explains. "We do more remote monitoring and troubleshooting and less remote control. However, we tell users how to fix their machines, or we can fix them by putting machines into program mode, and making needed changes."

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