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Virtual Support Engineer
1/22/2013

Using Virtual Support Engineer, OEMs access their assets in a highly secure environment exclusively using IT-approved outbound communication.   (Source: Rockwell Automation)
Using Virtual Support Engineer, OEMs access their assets in a highly secure environment exclusively using IT-approved outbound communication.
(Source: Rockwell Automation)

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naperlou
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Blogger
Smart support for Smart Systems
naperlou   1/22/2013 11:02:29 AM
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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.

williamlweaver
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Platinum
Re: Smart support for Smart Systems
williamlweaver   1/22/2013 1:56:26 PM
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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...

apresher
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Blogger
Virtual Support Engineer
apresher   1/22/2013 3:52:26 PM
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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.

williamlweaver
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Platinum
Re: Virtual Support Engineer
williamlweaver   1/22/2013 4:04:59 PM
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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.

Charles Murray
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Blogger
Re: Virtual Support Engineer
Charles Murray   1/22/2013 8:32:10 PM
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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.  

Ann R. Thryft
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Blogger
Re: Virtual Support Engineer
Ann R. Thryft   1/28/2013 12:15:17 PM
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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

Tim
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Platinum
Time saver
Tim   1/22/2013 8:33:22 PM
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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.

GlennA
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Gold
sometimes you have to be there
GlennA   1/22/2013 10:12:25 PM
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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.

Elizabeth M
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Blogger
Re: sometimes you have to be there
Elizabeth M   1/23/2013 7:47:20 AM
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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.

GTOlover
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Platinum
Re: sometimes you have to be there
GTOlover   1/23/2013 9:56:31 AM
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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!

Scott Orlosky
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Platinum
Re: sometimes you have to be there
Scott Orlosky   1/27/2013 2:59:44 PM
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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.

mikellekim
User Rank
Iron
Bidirectionality
mikellekim   1/23/2013 1:43:02 PM
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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.

apresher
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Blogger
Virtual Support Engineer
apresher   1/23/2013 4:25:02 PM
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mikellim, Thanks for weighing in on this topic.  Great points about being able to make changes as a key to avoiding visiting the machine location.  Also agree with your comment about security.

apresher
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Blogger
Virtual Support Engineer
apresher   1/23/2013 4:27:30 PM
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Chuck,  Many systems do use bi-directional remote communications to update system files, etc. from afar. With all of the concerns about security, some companies just won't allow that type of access.

Charles Murray
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Blogger
Re: Virtual Support Engineer
Charles Murray   1/23/2013 8:09:10 PM
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Sorry to belabor this, Al, but I'm still curious. Isn't bi-directional communication a necessity for offering support?

apresher
User Rank
Blogger
Virtual Support Engineer
apresher   1/23/2013 4:30:56 PM
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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.

apresher
User Rank
Blogger
Virtual Support Engineer
apresher   1/24/2013 5:46:53 PM
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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.

Charles Murray
User Rank
Blogger
Re: Virtual Support Engineer
Charles Murray   1/24/2013 6:55:44 PM
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That makes sense, Al. It's much simpler that fixing the problems caused by software viruses and worms.

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