Who's Minding the Store?

Oct. 1, 2005
New eyeballs are watching the plant run—and those eyeballs may be half a world away.

At the Long Beach (Calif.) Water District operations, a valve has to be opened to drain reclaimed water off a golf course each night. For a 30-day period, the system that monitors and operates that valve was broken. The water district had to send a person—getting overtime pay—out to the golf course every night to open the valve, wait for the water to drain, then close it. “Multiply that by 5,000. That’s how many valves we open and close.” says Ray Gonzales, manager of communications for the water district. “The payback for remote monitoring is high, even higher than you can imagine.”

Gonzales uses InTouch technology from Wonderware, an Invensys company based in Lake Forest, Calif., to view a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system of 30,000 data points over 90 remote telemetry units and programmable controllers (PLCs). The system runs on a network of five personal computers (PCs), each with 250-gigabyte disk drives to store the large amounts of data polled from the remote sites. Communicating via the 900 megahertz frequency band, the system allows Gonzales and his team to monitor and control water levels, pump stations, sewer systems, storm drains and a treatment plant capable of processing 63 million gallons of water per day.

Gonzales notes that it’s hard to assess the savings that comes from remote operation of the plant and tributaries of the water system, but that the benefits are substantial. “This saves hiring dozens of people to do that same work,” he says.

Interest in remote monitoring is growing as Web-based technology brings down the price. But the popularity of remote monitoring is also driven by a widespread decline in the number of knowledgeable workers. Plants cut their engineering staffs during the last recession. Baby boomer employees are nearing retirement, and plants and industrial facilities are not attracting newly graduated engineers—who would often rather work in plusher settings such as Internet search firm Google, or other Web-oriented companies. Remote monitoring thus becomes a way for industrial companies to give a shrinking workforce of skilled employees oversight over more plant operations.

Gonzales is attempting to use monitoring software to capture the system expertise of plant operators, because he expects the plant will lose that expertise in future years. “One of the major problems with facilities is that expertise is leaving,” says Gonzales. “My expertise will be leaving in three or four years. So we’ll break down that expertise to a technical level and put it in the remote monitoring software.”

Analysts expect the use of remote monitoring to expand, because the cost is low and the benefits are tangible. “This is going to increase and increase, since it will become more difficult for a manufacturer to run an efficient plant without having the supplier involved with the equipment,” says Wil Chin, director of research at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass.

Breakdown avoidance

Monitoring plant operations can help manufacturers shift their maintenance programs from preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance, and ultimately, to conditional maintenance, by which service or replacement is provided only when it is needed. It’s like your car tires. You get new tires when your tread gets low. You don’t change your tires just because you’ve driven 20,000 miles. You may still have another 10,000 miles of good wear left.

Remote monitoring can help manufacturers overcome the expense of changing parts that have not worn out. “People don’t realize how much of their maintenance is wasted. A third to half is unnecessary,” says Steve Rahr, head of services for automation systems at the Switzerland-based ABB Group. “They’re doing maintenance by the calendar rather than the condition of the part. The remote monitoring senses the vibration and knows the bearing is going to have a failure.”

The move to conditional maintenance is not an easy process, because it requires an awareness of the elements or conditions that indicate the equipment needs maintenance right now—not two weeks ago or two weeks from now. “The move from preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance and conditional maintenance sounds easier than it is,” says Ian Wray, vice president of product management at Indus International Inc., an Atlanta-based company whose services include remote monitoring. “It takes different people with different skills. We do it by connecting to the devices rather than going out into the field.”

Companies can also use remote monitoring to set up alarms across plants that will indicate when a part is running too hot. A signal can be sent to investigate the equipment before it causes a costly shutdown. “Remote monitoring is a proactive way to troubleshoot assets and use a predictive maintenance strategy,” says ARC’s Chin. “It is cost-effective because you can look at a lot of different pieces of equipment over the Web.”

Remote monitoring is being used to help plant operators improve the efficiency of their operations by looking for problems before they occur. “We can use the control system to troubleshoot the entire application or process line,” says Scott Lapcewich, general manager of customer support for Rockwell Automation Inc, a Milwaukee-based automation vendor. “We can monitor a paper machine at a paper mill and see everything that’s happening. We use that data to reduce downtime and hone in quickly on problems.”

By monitoring the entire plant, Lapcewich says he can provide immediate response without waiting for the customer to call. “We can get them up and running faster than they can on their own,” says Lapcewich. “We can also look at root causes so we can prevent the problem in the future.”

Remote monitoring can take a step beyond simple maintenance or diagnostics and enter the territory of quality, by working to improve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). “We can look at a measure of quality, whether it’s yield, throughput, or an availability calculation,” says John Schroeder, program manager for remote monitoring at ABB. “We can use that data to specifically improve OEE or improve availability.”

Optimize multiple plants

Plant managers are also using remote monitoring to benchmark plant operations. A company can view multiple plants and determine which one is operating most efficiently. Operators can then turn to the less efficient plants and replicate the practices of the well-running plant to improve overall manufacturing efficiency.

Rockwell monitors its customers’ plants to help them improve both the manufacturing process and maintenance activities. The company provides the service from its Cleveland offices where the experts work. “We hire people in our Cleveland command center who have application expertise,” says Lapcewich. “We keep frequent communication between our command center and the customer’s team, and we communicate how they can improve processing and maintenance. It’s almost as if we’re there.”

ABB follows a similar track of offering expertise to its customers, except that the company tries to embed that expertise—much like best practices—into the system itself. “We find the experts and build their expertise into the system rather than taking our experts to the customer site,” says Rahr. “The customer monitors the plant, but they may not know if something has happened. We know what set of conditions indicates there will be a problem. We build that knowledge into the system.”

ARC’s Chin believes optimization is one of remote monitoring’s greatest benefits, because it gives companies the ability to create a benchmark and bring all company operations up to a gold standard. “If Kraft has 100 plants making similar stuff, they can monitor and collect all of the information and look at the best-performing plant,” says Chin. “You use that as a benchmark to make all the plants run well. Then you manage by exception and you don’t have to do inspections.”

For more information, search keyword “remote monitoring” at www.automationworld.com.

See sidebar to this article: The Internet Brings Monitoring Costs Down