Someone's Watching from Afar

Monitoring equipment, components and processes from afar is developing into a substantial benefit for manufacturers…and suppliers.

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Sometimes employees and contractors need to see information wherever they are with whatever device they have at hand. Sometimes that old “making the rounds to collect information while carrying a clipboard” just doesn’t cut it any longer. Then again, technology suppliers have found that the ability to monitor their products while they are in use at customers’ plants is the surest way to provide prompt service—and improve their products, too.

“People all over our company need production information on demand,” says John Ragone, plant process optimization manager at National Grid/Keyspan, in Long Island, N.Y. With the recent acquisition of Keyspan, London-based National Grid operates the second largest utility in the United States and the largest in the United Kingdom. The plant process optimization department acquires and manages the infrastructure and applications to get information to the control rooms and to others who need the information.

The search for new solutions took Ragone to Monterey, Calif., in August 2006 and the OSIsoft users conference. There he met Michael Saucier, chief executive officer of Transpara, a start-up company in Pleasanton, Calif. Transpara had developed the technology to port information from OSIsoft’s PI historian to mobile devices such as smart mobile phones.

“Our primary infrastructure for collecting data from our distributed control systems, burner management systems and recorders is OSIsoft PI and iFix from GE Fanuc Automation,” says Ragone. “Michael showed me how I could get all this information on a cell phone, and I thought that this would be great. Like everyone, we have to do more with less. With this technology, we could get information out to people who can’t always pop open a laptop or even open a browser. But we can all have cell phones, and most everyone knows how to use Google. So I bought the system, and we had it up and running in a week—without needing an integrator.”

Transpara had originally targeted the process industries, and Keyspan is a utility. “They worked with us to provide the specific needs for the utility industry,” reports Ragone. The system includes an in-house Web server with restricted access to the Internet. Screens are developed for the various roles of users—from vice president to technician. “The screens are actually URLs [universal resource locators] on the server. Each screen captures only the information necessary for that particular role. So everyone who is authorized can call the URL with their cell phone and get specific information,” says Ragone.

Ideas from conferences

He is also bullish on the value of attending user conferences. “Every year, I leave that conference with some new thing we can use.” The biggest issue Ragone had selling the idea in the company was the stigma that associated cell phones as luxury items. The system has proved its worth, though. “All of our other systems are either event-driven, as in alarms, or scheduled. With this system, information is on demand, available whenever needed, and updated by the minute.”

The Transpara system is developed for smart phones running the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system. Ragone saw a demo of the system running on the much-hyped Apple iPhone, however. His reaction—“It’s sweet.”

This application is not surprising to Tom Fiske, senior analyst for automation and supply chain at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “Companies are searching for best practices in knowledge management,” says Fiske. “No matter what sort of industry, managers and operators need on-demand knowledge in order to do their jobs in the face of global competition in manufacturing.”

Few applications in industry are more remote than oil fields and gas wells. According to Amit Mehta, principal at enterprise connectivity integrator Moblize, in Houston, “A major issue for operators and investors alike has been transparency. By this, I am referring to the inability until fairly recently to access current, real-time production data from oil fields and gas wells that are generally located great distances from the typical operations center.”

Mehta says that new technologies for transmitting production data has relieved the operator of the somewhat cumbersome and time-consuming responsibility of monitoring remote production primarily through site visits and daily gauge reports prepared in the field and mailed or faxed to the operator daily or weekly. Since many of the people at the pumper/gauger locations are contractor employees, they usually have many other issues to contend with each day. Recruiting qualified people for these remote locations is another issue. Until the advent of mobile phones, many of these contractors could not even be contacted directly on an as-needed basis.

Moblize, among other companies, makes remote intelligent diagnostic systems that enable remote asset management by exception, in addition to providing reliable production information on a timely basis. Accurate measurement of produced hydrocarbons is critical to determining the performance and profitability of an operation. States Mehta, “The deployment of the intelligent remote diagnostic system with its electronic measurement capabilities at the sales transfer points provides our operator with an accurate and easily verifiable method calculated in the field at the time of such transfer. This capability allows our customer to reduce or even eliminate, in many cases, unfavorable or inaccurate volumes being reported, which we call ‘shrinkage.’ This situation can occur due to a number of factors, such as discrepancies in reported temperature of oil or gas volumes at the transfer point, delivery pressures, weight of the oil volumes purchased and the like.”

Two other benefits of remote diagnostic technologies Mehta has seen involve the integration of real-time video, and the integration of data with third-party analysis and optimization systems. “Real-time visual technology allows operators to monitor all operations regardless of the time of day. This helps provide field contractors with diagnostic information, as well as security and safety monitoring. The integration into analysis software converts data into actionable information.”

Smart services

One application that built upon the technologies of added intelligence at the machine, or process unit level, and Internet communications has been called M2M (for machine-to-machine), or more recently, “smart services.” More than just remote monitoring for alarms and trends, this blend of technologies offers the possibility that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), machine builders and technology providers can monitor the performance of their equipment at customers’ locations.

Two direct benefits ensue from this application. First, the OEM can gather direct performance information about how the machine or process is working, determine which components or systems are not performing to design intent, and use that information for the development of next generation machines or components. OEMs can also use this technology to sell additional service and support services to customers who have seen their maintenance staffs reduced either through retirement or cost-cutting moves. The idea works equally well in discrete and process industries.

In the small town of Värnamo, Sweden, around 250 kilometers east of Göteborg and in the middle of the green area known as Småland, lies the headquarters of Herber Engineering AB, a leading manufacturer of machines for the cold-forming of tubes and profiles. Herber predominantly exports its systems, the main buyers being suppliers to the automotive industry the world over. Herber systems, for example, are used especially in the forming of exhaust manifolds.

In collaboration with Bosch Rexroth, Herber has developed a new control system for the market, which it says revolutionizes technical support. “From our office at Värnamo, we can go in and take over a forming machine anywhere in the world. We can operate it remotely and control its operation right down to the individual valve or servo motor,” says Anders Alrutz, design manager at Herber.

This ability to remotely control and monitor machines eliminates most of the customer’s tech support costs while speeding response time. “The attendance time for a service engineer is basically the time it takes for the customer to call Herber on the phone,” Alrutz explains. In the event of a problem, the company simply dials into the control system via modem and Internet, and can then proceed with diagnosis, maintenance and even repairs. With permanent condition monitoring installed, the system can also be used to provide data on current machine status. Herber can also reduce warranty costs, enabling more efficient use of personnel—savings that the company passes directly on to the customer.

Cut times

Herber and Rexroth collaborated on the control system, with Rexroth developing a system based on knowledge gained from different areas of technology. The control system was equipped with valve panels, hydraulic cylinders and control electronics. Rexroth provided an HNC 100 programmable axis control system, specially designed for hydraulic drive systems. The system used fieldbus communication to the control system using Profibus and Sercos. Not only was the system developed to enable remote diagnostics and control, but it also cut cycle times by up to 20 percent—a win for everyone.

Remote support is not limited to machinery OEMs. Automation technology providers also are enhancing their service and support offerings with the same drivers noted before—intelligent devices, enhanced Internet communications, and fewer maintenance and engineering people at customer sites.

Rockwell Automation Inc., the Milwaukee-based automation supplier, has evolved its service offering to include three levels of support, culminating with a 24/7 command center in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, staffed with experienced engineers. The center is monitoring about 25 process lines—a number approximately double that of just two years ago. Scott Lapcewich, director of support services, describes the support levels as standard, reactive broadband connectivity and remote 24/7 continuous monitoring.

“With the standard level of remote support, the customer calls if there is a problem and gives us permission to go online and see the machine,” says Lapcewich. “The second level of support is still reactive in nature, but in this case, we have a continuous broadband connection, usually through a virtual private network (VPN). If the customer has a problem with a machine, programming code or other tool, we can go online and look at data on the server to help them troubleshoot.”

At the highest level of support, Rockwell engineers and technology monitor customers’ process lines literally 24-hours a day, seven days a week or 24/7. “We literally map out all the control points and then determine which ones to monitor and trend. It’s set up so we’ll be notified of alarms or faults. Looking at trend data, we can potentially anticipate problems and take a more proactive stance to solving problems. We have the data to perform a root cause analysis when problems repeat. Not only do we not wait for the customer’s call, sometimes we even call them and let them know of the potential problem. With this system, we are able to help the customer reduce both the length and number of downtime events.”

Lapcewich believes that customers are now more open to allowing suppliers to tap into their systems to allow these remote services. Some of the reason is because they have gotten so lean they don’t always have the personnel support for troubleshooting and “fire fighting.” As far as the selling process, Lapcewich says the value proposition is clear at the plant manager and vice president of operations level, but it’s necessary to involve the information technology (IT) department early so that they can gain a level of comfort with the level of security in the system.

Marilyn Guhr, senior marketing manager, lifecycle services at Honeywell Process Solutions, the Phoenix-based process controls vendor, says that Honeywell focuses in a couple of areas of remote service and support. “We monitor and manage certain aspects of the control network and security. The goal for diagnostic issues is to find situations before they become problems for the site. Looking at the data, we may know about an issue before the customer does.”

Early diagnosis

Mike Spear, manager of open systems services for the Americas, adds, “We do that from two levels—performance and predictive. Part of the process is alarming, where a call is generated to the call center and we get an alert. For example, we may discover that the customer is about to run out of disk space on the server or system, and we can let them know so that corrective action can be taken. We also monitor network traffic and look for deviations or abnormalities so that we can correct things before anything bad happens.”

Like Rockwell, Honeywell’s experience has been that IT must be brought into the process early. “You really need to lay out your connect methods and show them how security is handled to get their blessing,” says Spear. “Once we show them Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and VPN, our extranet that exists even within Honeywell, then they are willing to work with us.”

The technology for connecting has evolved over the years from slow and unreliable dial-up connections over telephone lines to today’s dedicated Internet wiring. Gerry Murphy, director of global service agreements at vendor Invensys Process Systems, in Foxboro, Mass., says his company has seen them all.

“We started using remote connection to our customers in 1992 and have been chasing the technology of the day ever since,” Murphy says. “Today, we have about 1,200 sites connected worldwide with Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) technology. As customers get more global and product complexity grows, the need to change how we do support grows. Now, we place a server at a customer’s site that maintains a history of such things as disk space usage, network collisions, various thresholds and the like. Information is sent to the monitor center for evaluation.”

Invensys uses technology called the Service Automation Platform from NextNine, an Israeli company with U.S. headquarters in New York. Among the important features supplied by NextNine are ease of use, support of multiple protocols, including Telnet, Secure Shell (SSH), Web and desktop, and secure communications.

Another piece of the Invensys solution involves embedding more diagnostics in its products so it can unobtrusively gather information about how those products are operating in order to feed back to engineering for future product development. Invensys has also discovered the value of getting IT involved early on in the conversations and assuaging fears of security holes. “We have this solution installed in 55 locations at the moment,” adds Murphy. “The intent is to make service less costly this way by solving the problem earlier without sending a technician from a remote office.”

Adding WiFi

Another technology in the arsenal of tools for connectivity is called device servers. These little Internet connectivity devices can be added to existing equipment to connect them into the grid. One manufacturer of these devices that connect existing sensors, networks and components via wireless Ethernet known as WiFi, for wireless fidelity, is ConnectOne Semiconductor, in San Jose, Calif. Udi Yuhjtman, president, says, “We provide a low cost WiFi module for engineers who want to tap into more and more machines, for example, the air conditioning system in a factory, but can’t afford to make the system more expensive. Since this works on Internet Protocol (IP), it is easy to explain to the IT department to get their blessing.”

With many technologies that leverage the exceptional connectivity of the Internet, companies are discovering ways to tap into remote expertise and improve profits and increase process uptime.

To see the accompanying sidebar to this story - "Embedded Java for Diagnostics" - please visit http://www.automationworld.com/view-3638

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