Online support services pay off

Many companies are connecting internal manufacturing equipment directly to external support specialists.

It’s become something of a cliché to say that technology continues to make our world more connected, but it’s true. Just as the telegraph and telephone took connectivity to new heights in earlier centuries, today’s high-tech systems—from cellular phone networks to the Internet—have brought the world even closer. And a growing number of savvy manufacturers are finding innovative ways to take advantage of today’s communications technologies. Many companies, for example, are connecting internal manufacturing equipment directly to external support specialists, creating a cost-effective method to decrease unplanned downtime and increase productivity and profits.

Online support services—also commonly referred to as remote monitoring and diagnostics programs—allow a support team to connect directly to a process line from a remote location. This type of support is not “online” in the sense that it is Web-based. Rather, it means that support specialists are leveraging various communication technologies, from dial-up modems to T1 lines, to connect to plant floor equipment, enabling the support specialists to collect and monitor production data, often in real-time. Having access to such data gives specialists the ability to diagnose and solve complex application problems more efficiently and effectively than they could using traditional phone support.

Many options

Recognizing that not all companies have the same support requirements, service suppliers offer a wide range of online support services to supplement companies’ internal technical capabilities. Options range from reactive services that use a standard phone line and modem to troubleshoot a problem after it has occurred, to more advanced, custom developed applications that rely on a high-speed network connection and are continuously and proactively monitored around the clock by a team of support specialists at an off-site command center.

Reactive online support services use the simplest remote monitoring system. A manufacturer installs a modem on the process line or equipment to be monitored. When a problem occurs, a maintenance technician or plant engineer calls his or her support provider. The support provider then uses a modem at its location to “dial-up” the connected device via a standard phone line. Production data can then be collected and monitored to help resolve the problem.

Online support services that use modems require a minimal investment in hardware and software, but they have limitations. For one, their effectiveness can be limited by the modem and phone line’s data transfer speed (56Kbytes/sec maximum). A second problem is the potential delay in resolving the problem. There is no continuous monitoring of the process, nor is data captured for root cause analysis of the problem. Thus, significant time and money can be lost before the request for help is even made.

Proactive online support services, or Continuous Control System Monitoring (CCSM), are when proactive monitoring and support occurs via a continuous high-speed broadband connection. CCSM services include the installation and maintenance of proprietary network equipment and monitoring software. The network equipment provides a secure, high-speed connection to the process line or lines with fault-tolerant server capacity to collect and store a large amount of production data. The speed and security of the connection, along with the monitoring software, allow off-site support specialists to analyze real-time production data around the clock, as if they were standing right next to the machine.

The ability to remotely monitor critical process data can bring numerous benefits, including increased return on technology investments, consistent production and delivery schedules, increased predictive maintenance opportunities and reduced time to market. By taking advantage of the online support services, manufacturers can essentially extend their maintenance organization to include full-time, around the clock automation specialists—workforce extension that can help improve uptime, optimize production, reduce costs and increase profits.

pababington@ra.rockwell.com is vice president, customer support maintenance, at Rockwell Automation.

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