The high cost of sending an engineer or skilled technician onsite to solve machinery problems is putting the focus on new ways to achieve higher levels of remote access support. Now, a service called Virtual Support Engineer is targeting machinery builder's OEMs to provide a way for securely connecting to machinery, improving troubleshooting and optimizing system performance.
Using the Virtual Support Engineer service, OEMs access their assets in a highly secure environment. While most other user solutions on the market transfer data bi-directionally through a firewall, the service relies exclusively on IT-approved outbound communication. This helps prevent computer viruses, worms, or other digital threats tied to inbound data transfer. Security is further enhanced by adding features such as recorded logins, thorough audit trails, video recording, and the ability for the end user to be given the rights to grant access on demand.
Using Virtual Support Engineer, OEMs access their assets in a highly secure environment exclusively using IT-approved outbound communication. (Source: Rockwell Automation)
Craig Resnick, vice president of consulting at ARC Advisory Group, said in a press release:
For OEMs, remote access to information generated by machines provides significant opportunity to improve service, but the potential benefits actually extend much farther. The ability to access and analyze machine data ultimately will help OEMs build more efficient and effective machines for their customers.
In the past, a main obstacle to receiving remote access has always been security concerns from end users. The Virtual Support Engineer service helps to relieve uncertainties when it comes to security by providing a more highly secure solution that is also more cost-effective for OEMs of all sizes.
OEMs using the Virtual Support Engineer service receive access to real-time alarming capabilities that can be delivered via text message or email, to themselves, their customer, or a Rockwell Automation remote-support application engineer. Through the system, OEMs use a simple graphical interface to configure alarms for key tags and performance indicators, allowing for quick response to issues and proactive prevention. Alarm capabilities also can indicate potential for future equipment failures, allowing OEMs to make proactive adjustments prior to catastrophic failure -- all without travelling onsite to their customer's facility. Access to machinery alarm data and analytics information also can help inform future performance enhancements to machinery.
In emergency situations, the Virtual Support Engineer service proactively notifies OEMs when equipment goes down. The system sends a constant signal to the Rockwell Automation Service Center indicating a machine's online status. If this connection is lost, Rockwell Automation immediately notifies the appropriate party, who can then troubleshoot the issue from anywhere.
Al, this is an interesting application, and a good solution to a major concern. It makes no sense to have an engineer outside of the facility controlling machines inside the facility. On the other hand, there is a lot one can discern about a system with a steady stream of telemetry. In addition, as mentioned, the smart controllers can generate alerts so that support engineers can assess the health of the system. All in all a good thing. This was, of course, done in the computer industry, primairly in mainframes, many years ago. Those were "smart" systems, so it was natural to do it.
Al and naperlou, I wonder if it is possible to quantify how much of this movement to remote monitoring is being spurred by high cost and how much is the natural result of automation. I appreciate that there are lots of security issues and even more OEMs involved, but hasn't this capability existed since the early 1990's with the founding of ODVA.org? Perhaps there is a confluence of higher cost and lower resistance to change that is enabling this now, 20+ years after it was technologically feasible to do so. One generation later in human terms, 13+ generations in Moore's terms...
William, I can attest from first hand experience working for an automation supplier that cost, but also the speed of dealing and resolving problems, has been driving the move to remote support for easily more than 10 years. The ability of a skilled engineer or technician to immediately logon and review code in a control system is a huge benefit. For machinery builders, it definitely reduces support costs and enables (for the hardest problems) to have key engineering staff to review the app versus sending someone on the road.
Thanks for the quick reply, Al. I come from that PS/2 generation of technology fans that projected virtual reality and flying cars by 2001. I still find it difficult to integrate reality into my musings of a connected future. Maybe we are getting there, albeit, slowly. I agree that remote diagnosis is an awesome ability. Perhaps remote machine diagnosis is following the trends in remote diagnosis for humans.
Interesting concept, Al. I'm curious, though: Is diagnostic ability limited as a result of the outbound-only communication set-up? Seems like bi-directional communication would be an important of a system like this one.
Looks like a similar, even parallel, trend to remote robotic maintenance & repair, as DN has covered more than once: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=257502 http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=253921 http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=247655
This is a great application of secure connections to help with production problems. As a practice, my company does not run external communications to our machinery due to security concerns. These highly secure connections would help to sway our IT department. We had a recent application that required error monitoring on a new piece of machinery, but we needed to have the supplier stay at our facility and send information back to their headquarters via e-mail. This system got the job done, but it was inefficient. If the supplier could continually monitor the machine, they could have had better real time data and supplied us with a solution quicker.
I have done telephone support for industrial machines, and sometimes a technician has to be on-site to diagnose the problem. Many times I have diagnosed a problem on-site because the operator couldn't properly describe the problem on a telephone call. To reduce downtime, the first choice is to try to fix the machine remotely through a telephone call.
Yes, I agree with Glenn, although I think a solution like this can be helpful in some situations. But sometimes there is no replacement for a live person who can quickly assess the situation and get the job done quickly and correctly.
I first saw the headline and thought that DN was reporting on the development of the system that puts engineers virtually at the machine. This article, as pointed out by others, is just highlighting remote data that has been in existence for quite sometime.
The technology I am referring to is vitual presence. It consists of a maintenance person (or other plant staff) to wear a head mounted display and camera. This communicates to the offsite engineers the state of equipment, notifies the user of troubleshooting procedures, and gives the engineer the visual of everything the actual plant staff is doing. This is even being shown on commercials for firemen safety (GE I think?). Think of what our military has been using in combat field for direct feedback to command and control. This is being applied in the manufacturing environment. As machines get very sophisticated, transmission of control data is only part of the engineers need for quick responses. They need a virtual presence to actually see the machine running (or malfunctioning) to help direct corrective actions of root causes and avoid/limit future failures!
The digital age has definitely helped with troubleshooting industrial products. Emails often have scope traces, digital photos and test data attached that just would not have been possible a generation ago. This seems like a natural extension of communication capability if and when the security concerns can be addressed. Customers also have to be willing to pay more for equipment that has the built-in diagnostic and interconnect functionality.
My employer has a remote connection solution, and it does save some trips by field service engineers. Frequently the problem must be solved by a person getting on a plane, but that remote assessment can better inform them for what to expect and what parts to order, and that can save valuable time.
I question the value of security by unidirectionality. Many of our customers have sophisticated IT departments and are less concerned with viruses coming in than with valuable IP going out.
Also, being able to give commands or upload configuration changes to the tool is usually the key to avoiding that plane trip.
GLOlover, I know that some OEM machinery builders have implemented systems that also use a video link, so that plant personnel can walk around the machine and provide the remote support personnel with live video as well. No question that is a powerful advantage, although I don't know how many companies are using that approach.
Chuck, I would guess the plan is to diagnose problems from afar, but implement solutions using local plant personnel. In many automation systems, application software issues for example can be difficult to debug until the machine is in production. A skilled engineer can see the problem, fix the code and then email it to someone at the plant to make the update. Just one possible scenario.
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