The interconnectivity of Internet Protocol (IP) technology is redefining “remote” in industrial automation.
Today, IP-based networks are allowing manufacturers to leverage off-site experts to solve problems inside the plant, using multimedia data streams like live video. IP-enabled devices give oil and gas producers the capability to monitor and maintain unmanned well heads in the coldest and deepest oceans. IP-centric security services – such as swipe-card entry systems and video surveillance – help municipal water companies protect critical satellite assets like pumping stations and reservoir locks.
These are just a few ways in which the ubiquitous interconnectivity of IP is helping industrial-automation vendors conquer the challenges of distance and logistics. Unified, open-standard networking platforms and IP-enabled devices – many borrowed from the commercial world – are digitally expanding the spectrum of remote assets and services.
These remote solutions are helping plants reduce downtime, increase product quality, optimize human capital, and harness Big Data to drive further improvements throughout the enterprise.
Industrial automation users face a growing shortage of in-house expertise. As the workforce ages, more skilled and seasoned employees are retiring from plants, taking their “tribal” knowledge with them. Meanwhile, fewer workers are available who understand often-complex manufacturing processes or who can troubleshoot increasingly advanced machinery.
This knowledge gap has helped make subject matter experts (SMEs) today’s most valuable remote asset. Using advanced, IP-enabled data services –including instant messaging, Web file-sharing, and voice and video – offsite control and manufacturing process experts can collaborate with plant operators to analyze, diagnose and troubleshoot problems.
The SME may be on the other side of the world or at a sister plant in the same state. Regardless of the location, the right SME can quickly and securely help provide the right solution – if the right IP technology and unified network is in place. For example, using hardened technologies, such as EtherNet/IP and ruggedized on-site cameras, OEM engineers can view a live stream of machinery operating at a customer’s facility.
Security is often a concern for manufacturers when it comes to remote access over the Internet. Access, of course, needs to be limited to those individuals that are authorized to access systems, and their authorized actions need to be aligned to corporate and plant policies and procedures.
Additionally, automation suppliers have responded with in-depth guidelines and standards that advocate differentiated zones and multiple layers of defense to ensure confidentiality,
and data integrity, and availability. Among the key security components in the manufacturing zone are multiple VLANs, which segment the traffic of specific devices and ports.
With the correct security procedures, policies and system architecture in place, open-standard networks provide automation users with unprecedented ability to leverage outside expertise whenever necessary.
The resulting impact on a production company’s bottom line could be substantial, starting with OEE and reduced meantime-to-repair. From an accounting perspective, outsourcing is simply an expense, while hiring a permanent in-house expert comes with the capital cost of increasing head count.
The value of fully convergent, IP-based networks and services in automation extends well beyond the unexpected.
Remote monitoring and diagnostics (RM&D) solutions, for instance, enable companies with multiple sites to virtually oversee operations for continuous quality control, as well as to optimize processes and operations.
One example: A family-owned specialty bread company based in California built its first sister plant in Georgia, allowing it closer access to East Coast markets. To ensure consistent quality with the original product – including the correct color and uniform size of each loaf – the company installed video cameras above the conveyor leading from the ovens.
Company managers in California – or anywhere there’s an Internet connection – now can view loaves coming off the line in Georgia. IP-enabled software also aggregates critical operating data, including parameters like baking temperature, and produces real-time dashboards and Web-based reports. This allows West Coast managers to perform real-time diagnostics and work with technicians on the East Coast to ensure the product meets customers’ expectations.
Manufacturers can integrate similar RM&D solutions with product deliveries to perform real-time diagnostics at distant customer sites. Companies can record diagnostic sessions, which can be incorporated into online “show and share” portals where engineers and technicians access discussions about root-cause analysis, get training and share best practices.
Long-distance data services
Oil and gas companies operate in many of the world’s most extreme locations. Typically, they have stationed maintenance experts near these outposts to keep them as close to the process as possible. But these personnel costs can be high, especially as many people are reluctant to work for long stretches in inhospitable conditions, such as those found on frozen tundra.
IP-based solutions are changing that scenario. For example, a Canadian oil sands company has built a “shadow” control room in its Calgary headquarters to monitor and control oil sites that lie more than 1,000 mi/km North in Alberta. The control room uses a virtualized computing environment to mimic site control rooms in remote locations, helping solve the issue of hiring expensive site operators to work in harsh conditions.
While oil and gas generally are refined far from the point of production, the opposite is true for many food processors. Take the sugar industry. Sugar mills typically are located near cane fields or sugar-beet farms because rapid processing is important to maximize sugar extraction and minimize spoilage.
Finding highly experienced and knowledgeable process engineers can be hard in remote rural areas. That’s why sugar mills increasingly are turning to off-site experts and IP-enabled data services. Equipped with just a laptop, an Internet connection and a Web/data conferencing service, SMEs can help less-skilled workers optimally operate and maintain sugar mills.
Big Data on demand
Centralizing production and other core business data is another key benefit of IP technology, especially for organizations that operate multiple production installations across the country and around the globe.
Like many major companies, automobile manufacturers increasingly are building plants closer to the markets they serve, including countries with emerging economies such as Asia, India and South America. Increasingly, car makers are using IP-based data services – everything from file-sharing, to cloud computing and Big Data – to collect, store, synthesize and analyze information in a central source.
The resulting outputs can help answer a broad spectrum of mission-critical questions: Which plants require offline maintenance? Why is a specific machine performing well in one plant and not at another? How can top management drive global standards in plants from Detroit to Hanoi?
The advanced computing capabilities offered by online data centers allow manufacturers to quickly mine large masses of information for important trends that can influence production decisions.
Another plus: The cloud allows for easy sharing and distribution of information among related facilities virtually anywhere across the globe. Similarly, manufacturers with multiple locations can stay in operational sync by providing a single source for stored data, current software enhancements and a host of resources that optimally should be shared.
To take full advantage of this new age in remote assets and services, plants must employ open communications standards supported by the Internet Protocol.
To learn more about remote monitoring, sign up for the Industrial IP Advantage industrial network design training here.