Uptime Requirements Drive Edge Solutions

June 6, 2016
We need remote access to edge devices so that we can bring a higher level of service to our clients faster.

Uptime is everything. We spend a lot of time helping our customers maximize uptime through process analysis, equipment health monitoring, reliable machines—all of the traditional ways that you’d expect.

What’s new these days is that our customers now want to be able to view and manage their edge-of-network devices from a central location so they can troubleshoot as quickly as possible. Whereas in the past they might have been willing to have an automatic paging system set up to send a technician to the fault, today they want to access the device remotely and troubleshoot immediately.

In designing remote access for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) systems, one of the first questions that comes up is about security. Clearly, machine controls involving motion and safety can’t have even the slightest risk of outside interference. That’s why control equipment is almost always confined to the local industrial network.

We never want to put the control network directly in communication with the company’s cloud or with the Internet because of security risks. We want to have a highly secure device that bridges the network with separate interfaces.

On an edge device, like an IIoT gateway, one network interface communicates on the control network, while the other interface is dedicated to communicating with the Internet or the company’s intranet. With cloud-based solutions, it’s even more critical to manage those communication paths in an effective and secure way.

Most of us are familiar with cloud-based screen sharing services like GoToMeeting, Lync or Google Hangouts, which allow a remote viewer to see our screen or even take control. IT helpdesks have used these for years so that they can see what the user sees.

Manufacturing needs this type of access to its edge devices. When all the data stayed inside a plant, a Lync-like approach worked fine. But as companies expand IIoT and move their data to the cloud, new methodologies are required. The data has to have a path to get from a troubleshooter in Michigan to a system deployed in Mexico, giving the Michigan viewer full access to that device without any compromise in security.

We’re seeing this requirement driven by our customers not only internally, but also to suppliers like us. Without remote access, we’re often relying on descriptions of a problem via phone or email, or photos taken on a cellphone camera, or at best a screen shot. When a problem is impacting production rates, that kind of pace is unacceptably slow.

Plants want us to have the ability to support solutions as deployed. We need to be able to request access from anywhere to a plant floor device without any additional hardware or software requirements, without having a third-party router in place, and without having third-party security administration. We need to have that capability built into our network edge devices so those connections can be generated.

Having remote access to edge devices anywhere in the world is allowing manufacturers and their suppliers to provide a level of service and support that we’ve never had before. It’s a game changer for improved uptime.

Greg Giles, [email protected], is an executive director of manufacturing execution systems (MES) for RedViking, a member of the Control System Integrators Association. He leads a team of electrical and software engineers to design and implement MES, including error proofing, tracking and traceability, part kitting and sequencing, mobile factory apps, and custom app and report design. He graduated from the University of Michigan Dearborn with a B.S. in electrical engineering. Visit RedViking’s profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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