Suppliers Apply Web Technologies To Help Automation Users

Fewer engineers and technicians working in manufacturing means less time available to travel to obtain the training required to implement, maintain and upgrade complex automation equipment.

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It also means a need for more information from vendors and faster response when situations occur. Suppliers need to find creative answers for their customers’ needs—and they are using some of the latest Internet and Web technology to accomplish this.

Tina Taylor, general manager, global customer operations, for GE Intelligent Platforms (www.ge-ip.com), in Charlottesville, Va., concurs. “Customers want speed, access and accuracy of information. Therefore, companies are launching more modern self-service tools such as Twitter, customer portals and workflows to equip highly productive centers that provide customers with the ability to manage their global operations more efficiently.”

Two examples of supplier initiatives reveal the extent that new technologies are bringing real service and support to customers. First, Steve Carlson, senior product manager, Global Managed Services, for controls vendor Rockwell Automation Inc. (www.rockwellautomation.com), in Milwaukee, gives some background trends, “The pool of highly skilled technical workers in manufacturing has been shrinking for years and that will not likely change anytime soon. And customers are demanding faster and faster response and resolution times.”

Rockwell is attacking this problem by using Internet technologies to build a new enterprise remote services infrastructure. “This technology allows us to proactively monitor all of the manufacturing technology and networks, and alert both us and our customers to potential problems, allowing our engineers and our customers to avoid downtime events,” adds Carlson. This allows response time in minutes rather than days. As an added bonus, geography is no longer a constraint, as expertise can be engaged no matter where located.

When you add the factors of reduced workforce, geographic diversity and production pressures, getting engineers and technicians to attend critical training at a supplier’s site is difficult, if not impossible. That’s not to mention the expense of shipping equipment to geographically remote sites where there may be only a couple of students. Yet, without training, they cannot expect to realize all of the benefits of the equipment—and it may even leave them and their companies susceptible to incidents.

Emerson Process Management (www.emersonprocess.com), the Austin, Texas-based process controls supplier, has invested in a “virtual classroom” at its headquarters. Not just an online course where students visit a Web site and view slides or a few videos, this is a true virtual, and live, course. A variety of multi-day classes have been given so far this year—some as long as 4.5 days in length. Geography is no restraint—except for perhaps having the instructor at the podium from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. when the class is on the other side of the globe. In fact, the very first class was in the Philippines.

Students only need a computer with solid broadband connection to the Internet. The instructor is on camera, and so are the students back to the instructor. Equipment is in the training room in Austin, where the instructor can monitor what the student is doing. The idea is to duplicate the classroom experience in every way except for physical presence. Students will sometimes gather in a conference room at the plant or log in from their living rooms. They don’t have to travel or be away from their families. The only thing they miss is gathering with the class for a beverage afterwards and discussing common problems. With twelve classes under its belt, Emerson has already booked 20 more. Obviously, this meets a need.

Gary Mintchell, gmintchell@automationworld.com, is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

GE Intelligent Platforms
www.ge-ip.com

Rockwell Automation Inc.
www.rockwellautomation.com

Emerson Process Management
www.emersonprocess.com

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