Why Remote Access is More Widely Used in the Process Industries

June 2, 2021
From dealing with core operating factors such as the hazardous and remote location of many assets to new consolidation and outsourcing trends, the process industries are leading the way with remote monitoring technology use.

Automation World has been reporting on research into expected automation technology spending trends as the pandemic begins to wind down. Two articles published thus far from this research look at trends for the discrete and batch manufacturing industries, respectively. (Editor’s note: A full report on findings from the Automation World research into automation technology spending trends will be published in the August 2021.)

While reviewing the findings from the research focused on the continuous processing industry, we noticed that remote access technologies ranked among the top five for expected spending. It did not rank that highly for discrete manufacturers.

Considering that a few technologies ranked in the top 5 across all verticals (for example, data acquisition and analytics, cybersecurity software, and IoT platform software), we were curious as to why remote access would rank so highly among continuous processors compared to other manufacturing industries.

Josh Eastburn, director of technical marketing at Opto 22, suggests the reason is largely due to continuous process operations often being in hazardous, restricted, or remote areas. He pointed to petrochemical industry installations as a perfect example. “Remote access increases the safety and efficiency of operations compared to sending operators into these areas,” Eastburn said.

Adding to this, Jesse Hill, process industry manager at Beckhoff Automation, said, “In upstream and midstream oil-and-gas applications, many times the control systems are in remote locations that are difficult to access. This can also be the case in downstream oil and gas and other large processing plants. Even though the location of the assets may be within the confines of the plant itself, the system that needs monitoring and access may be hundreds of meters or even miles away, and there are sometimes safety concerns with personnel moving within the plant.”

Another differentiating factor is that discrete production assets don’t always lend themselves to monitoring like those in a continuous or batch production process, according to Michael Risse, vice president and chief marketing officer at Seeq. “Time series data—the basis for monitoring—is often limited to short bursts, such as a weld, a dip tank, or a seal in discrete manufacturing because operations are more about assembly than long-running processes,” he said. This scenario changes, of course, when a discrete manufacturer puts sensors on a device. At that point, “telemetry from the sensors is 100% time series data and all sorts of opportunities for monitoring arise, including offering a monitoring service.”

Despite the differences in remote monitoring use between discrete manufacturers and continuous processors, discrete manufacturing plants still have need for remote access and monitoring, said Aaron Crews, director for modernization solutions and consulting at Emerson. “This was a trend we saw rapidly increase when the global pandemic limited the number of people that could be in a facility at any given time. However, these (discrete manufacturing) industries are far more likely to be located close to population centers where having expert personnel arrive onsite is often less complicated and costly.”

Consolidation and Outsourcing

Specific business trends in industry are also influencing remote monitoring applications. Risse said that process manufacturers are increasingly in a transition regarding who handles the monitoring and associated expertise. 

“Just as most companies outsource their cafeteria operations,” said Risse. “The question now is: What assets does a user monitor on its own versus what they outsource to a third party to monitor? At Seeq we have customers in each one of these categories.”

As examples of this, Risse cited a supplier of turbines and steam traps that offers a monitoring system to its customers; a partner company of Seeq that offers a monitoring system to its customers to monitor assets on their behalf; and a processing customer that has an internal remote monitoring/best practices center for monitoring assets on behalf of the company’s plants.

This trend toward consolidation of asset monitoring was echoed by Kevin Finnan, Yokogawa industry consultant, who said, “Among our customers most rapidly deploying remote access were those who had already been working on integrated operations or remote operations centers. These customers operate many facilities on a global basis and are consolidating their subject matter expertise, maintenance support, and other disciplines in central or key remote locations. In many cases, the operations centers serve facilities such as offshore platforms, which present significant travel costs and risks. Weather events and safety concerns also make integrated operations centers attractive.” 
Watch this "Take 5" video from Automation World highlighting discrete manufacturing spending trends in 2021.

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