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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"With direct access to our PLC, we felt we could monitor the operation of our systems," says Carl Steffen, VRTX's engineering services manager. "We'd be able to get alarms, see detrimental system operation and offer better and more informed technical support." Following a lengthy investigation, VRTX selected Netbiter EC220 gateways and Netbiter Argos Web-based, remote monitoring systems from HMS Industrial Networks.

"The initial reason we chose the Netbiter solution was the Netbiter EC220 gateway offered RS-485 interfaces in a small, well-built device," says Steffen. "It also offered preprogrammed GSM cards that would immediately work in many of our desired countries without the need to negotiate with local cellular carriers. Although the EC220 offered many standard I/O connections, we initially only interfaced with our PLC via the Modbus interface."

Steffen explains that, at first, VRTX wanted to capture system information only once or twice per day. However, when its staff learned they could get information more frequently, they started finding benefits for its customers that they hadn't seen before. The ability to get more frequent information also led VRTX to change some of the treatment system’s operations, which also led to better treatment and a more consistent product.

"Remote monitoring has increased the value of our treatment skids," adds Steffen. "It enabled us to change system settings without needing to call the customer or send out a technician. It's also enabled us to troubleshoot failures and have the appropriate repair parts on site as our technicians arrive. It also gives us insight into the operations of our systems on a minute-by-minute basis, whereas, in the past, we only saw changes over long periods."

Remote support benefits upper levels and end-user sites, and it inspires machine builders because it affects how they do their jobs says Kamalina Srikant, product manager for condition monitoring solutions at National Instruments, agrees. "Many engineers and technicians don't have to make as many trips to users' locations, which is changing their thinking and showing up on their bottom lines," says Srikant. "At the same time, traditional power-generation applications like coal are being joined by more natural gas, wind and solar, and all of these have a lot more equipment in critical paths and need much more remote monitoring."

Also, based on its long experience in helping users gain insight into the health of rotating machinery and making business decisions to successfully implement predictive maintenance, National Instruments recently released its NI InsightCM Enterprise ready-to-run software with tightly integrated and flexible hardware options for online condition monitoring applications. It's used to acquire and analyze measurements, generate alarms, visualize and manage data and results and simplify remote management for large deployments of monitoring systems.

Really Far Out Support

Naturally, once remote machine support is established between builders and users, it's tempting to see just how remote that support can be. Strong IP connections, VPNs and communication signals can go anywhere, way beyond land-based shops and factories, but they'd better have stellar support.

For instance, Aquatic Engineering & Construction in Aberdeen, Scotland, U.K., recently worked with system integrator MAC Solutions in Redditch, Worcestershire, U.K., to improve monitoring of its ship-based tensioning machines, which lay down, install, transpool, recover and decommission flexible and semi-rigid cables and other products on the seabed for clients in the oil and gas, telecommunications and energy industries. Though it strives to make its equipment reliable and can resolve many issues with a phone call, Aquatic wanted to quiz its tensioners remotely and reduce service engineer call-outs to vessels.

"Aquatic provides equipment for the installation and spooling of flexible flowlines, umbilicals, cables, wire ropes and coil tubing," says Brian McRitchie, electrical manager at Aquatic’s marine workshop in Peterhead, Scotland. "Installed on marine vessels, this equipment can include anything from small tensioners to dual-tensioner systems, powered reel-drive systems or a fully modular carousel system with built-in tensioner," he explains. "Our customers hire this service, and expect the equipment and the personnel that operate it to perform reliably with minimal downtime. These ships can be located anywhere in the world, so if there's an uncommon problem with our machine, we need to resolve it quickly."

McRitchie researched a suitable VPN router that Aquatic could integrate with its 85Te dual-tensioner system, and found MAC Solutions and eWon's 2005CD VPN routers and Talk2M Internet-based, remote-access, support and diagnostics software and service. Aquatic installed three 2005CD routers with dual local area network (LAN) and modem connectivity on the 85Te, and it monitors the tensioner via VSAT global, satellite-based Internet links or 3G cellular Internet connections. Besides having an Ethernet port, two of the three routers also have SIM cards, so, if a VSAT link is unavailable, Aquatic's engineers can access their equipment via 3G.

"To test and fully understand the VPN router and Talk2M, we trialed the system on one of our 50Te tensioners in the workshop at Peterhead," explains McRitchie. "Everything worked well, and, if we didn’t understand something, the team at MAC Solutions quickly provided us with the necessary technical support. With Talk2M, it’s as if the service engineer is physically onboard the ship, next to the machine or control cabinet, accessing the HMI display or PLC with a laptop."

McRitchie adds that eWon and Talk2M give Aquatic a differentiator in the dual-tensioners it rents to marine vessel operators. "Some of our tensioner systems also have cameras installed, so local operators can see what's happening from their control rooms or booths," says McRitchie. "Talk2M also enables me to access this same Web-camera view. I can also screen-share with a user to remotely instruct them on the operational idiosyncrasies of the systems or how to navigate through the more isolated control and monitoring screens."

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