Give the Green Light

March 30, 2009
Allowing Trusted Outsiders in Through Secure VPN Tunneling Makes Comprehensive Tracking a Reality

By Chris Roach, FKI Logistex

As manufacturing and distribution warehouse systems adopt more complicated and inter-networked technology, the ability to fix controls and software issues in-house and on-site diminishes. 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.

Thanks in part to the adoption of auditable VPNs, there is a growing trend to replace buffer inventory with intelligent, networked systems that map, monitor and manipulate the entire supply chain. The shift from discrete, dedicated industrial networks to enterprise-level networks has implications for data security, however. Not only do these systems track inventory, manage supply chains and diagnose and resolve material handling system malfunctions, they also manage sensitive data corporate-wide, exposing companies to the possibility of serious privacy and security breaches. In fact, some systems are networked with sensitive access to not only their own building but an entire city network, including traffic signals.

Before the creation of VPNs, granting enterprise network access to the potentially prying eyes of an outsider was virtually unheard of. Instead, many DC systems kept the controls safe and isolated in a building, often with just a modem connection. To double the protection, the modem was left unplugged until remote diagnostics were needed and then disconnected again once the problem was solved. It was not exactly an ideal solution because service engineers could waste significant time just trying to establish access.

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?

Providing the passwords and login information to too many users creates the potential for breaches and lack of accountability. If too few users have the information, it could mean an idle piece of equipment with no quick solution. To complicate matters, there has been no cross-platform standard for ensuring data security across the material handling industry. Some suppliers get restricted access, others temporary logins. Even within a single warehouse space, each could have entirely different means of securing and accessing its particular machine.

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 can now be matched with secure access through VPNs. The pipeline of information can be kept wide open, with constant access to data.

Capitalizing on the fact that information is flowing from the VPN 24/7, it is now possible to record and track data from the machine and network activity. When used in conjunction with constant monitoring, access can be traced, recorded and archived automatically as an audit of system access activity. Customers can see not only who has accessed the system, but when they accessed it, the duration of the session, which areas they visited and what, if any, changes were made.

Data regarding maintenance and operation can also be captured and stored. If you would like to know the track record of a certain machine or the history down to the individual parts, a real-time auditing system can provide you with this information. When used in conjunction with other cost-effective maintenance techniques such as predictive maintenance, these audits provide comprehensive information not otherwise available. For example, although a machine’s maintenance record indicates that it has a few weeks or months left before its next scheduled maintenance, performance monitoring can reveal that it may require attention sooner rather than later. Constant and proactive monitoring also allows suppliers to instantly see when a system is in danger of going down even before it shows a warning sign.

While the potential security risk is a downside to remote connectivity, new technology is swiftly addressing security concerns and responding with benefits. In this case, the rewards far outweigh the risks, making remote access a feasible and safe way to maintain uptime. In today’s credit-strapped economy, it is more important than ever to squeeze greater performance out of existing infrastructure and equipment. Upgrading legacy networks and streamlining secure access can minimize, and often prevent, costly downtime.

Chris Roach is vice president, customer service and support, at FKI Logistex, St. Louis.

Watch our video Machine Builder Spotlight: Kiva Systems’ Mobile Robotic Drive Units. In this video, Peter Blair, director of marketing and communications, and Pete Mansfield, engineering fellow, hardware systems, explain the distributed intelligence that makes Kiva Systems’ pick–pack–ship solution an empowered material–handling device.