Remote Access: Widespread but Still Evolving

An Automation World survey finds that remote access technologies are relatively pervasive for tried-and-true production monitoring and diagnostics applications, but predictive maintenance is still growing.

Whether taking a walk down the hall or hopping a flight to some far-flung destination, monitoring plant operations or large assets in the field has traditionally been an on-site role. Thanks to the emergence of remote access technologies, however, the need to be physically present to problem solve or monitor operations is fast becoming a thing of the past. Despite companies’ increasing level of comfort with remote access in general, they remain slow to expand usage into more sophisticated areas, including predictive maintenance applications enabled by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

A recent Automation World survey confirms that remote access is no longer a fledgling technology embraced by a limited number of early pioneers. Almost three quarters of survey respondents (72 percent) are employing remote access technologies to gain entrée to plant equipment and data while off site. Not surprisingly, the same number of respondents have multiple plant locations, which in part explains their interest in remote access technologies as a way to keep tabs on distributed operations. Among those who have yet to implement remote access technology, 46 percent say they plan to do so; the other 54 percent, however, say their companies do not permit it.

Despite a small amount of reticence, remote access technology is not a novel application. About 40 percent of the companies responding to our survey have had remote access capabilities in place for industrial applications for longer than five years; an additional 31 percent have been using the technology for one to five years.

Overall, manufacturers are making more liberal use of remote access functionality, but usage is highly varied depending on industry, according to Matt Wells, general manager of automation software for GE Digital. Vertical market segments such as wind, water, power transmission and marine, for example, are far more likely to invest in the technology compared with traditional manufacturers, which still tend to be more plant-centric. “Anyone dealing with distributed fleets has a strong demand to be able to see, manage or control it from a remote spot,” he explains. “It all comes down to the difficulty of accessing that remote asset.”

Going mobile
Increased demand for remote access is inextricably tied to the rise of mobile devices, which are now ubiquitous among operators and other plant floor personnel. The whole concept of mobility gives operators the freedom to monitor devices or collect usage data on equipment without being physically present or tethered to a specific programmable logic controller (PLC) and human-machine interface (HMI) on the plant floor.

“All [remote access] solutions give operators complete situational awareness to everything that’s going on with the factory floor from wherever they are—that’s what’s picked up steam these last 18 months,” says Matt Newton, director of technical marketing at Opto 22. “It lets an operator virtually be present in their factory without actually having to physically be there to look at the process.”

Customers operating a wind turbine farm, for example, can monitor the speeds of the turbines and the amount of electricity being produced, and even perform some basic controls like turning turbines on and off based on market pricing, Newton explains. In another example, a food manufacturer can keep tabs on a refrigeration system remotely to avoid the nightmare scenario of frozen foods melting over the weekend because there was no on-site visibility into the system. “All around, the concept of connectivity is tapping into information you didn’t have access to before,” he says.

According to our survey, the most prevalent use case for remote access is for maintenance, repair, troubleshooting and diagnostic applications, cited by 60 percent of respondents. Production monitoring is next in line at 44 percent, and 26 percent of respondents are leveraging the technology to support manufacturing intelligence applications for plant management and executives.

Though companies are actively embracing remote access, few anticipate an expanded role for the technology any time soon, the survey found. Beyond their current use, respondents said future plans call for putting remote access to work for pretty much the same types of tasks: maintenance, repair, troubleshooting and diagnostics (36 percent); production monitoring (33 percent); and manufacturing intelligence (26 percent). About 22 percent of respondents said they are already maximizing usage of the technology.

Given the most popular applications, the primary users of remote access technologies remain plant operators, engineers and technicians, with 65 percent of respondents saying those positions are involved at their sites. Plant management was another healthy sized user with 37 percent of respondents adding them to the list, while third-party engineers (24 percent) and corporate management (22 percent) made up the rest of the user base.

For the most part, manufacturers are leveraging remote access to deliver more flexibility to personnel and save costs. Two of the primary motivators for the technology are to reduce the time and expense involved in physically deploying workers to a site for problem resolution (cited by 60 percent of survey respondents) and to reduce downtime (53 percent). Manufacturers are also tapping the technology to improve knowledge of production operations and provide better insight into equipment conditions (42 percent each).

“One of the primary drivers is eliminating travel costs,” says Keith Blodorn, director of the wireless program at ProSoft Technology, which provides industrial automation connectivity solutions. ProSoft Connect is a cloud-native platform designed to simplify secure remote access to automation systems. “One of our customers recently had to fly out to a place that’s hard to get to, and the plane ticket cost $1,500 at the last minute. They got there, plugged into the PLC, found the problem in 10 minutes, but couldn’t get a return flight for three days. That showcases a tangible value for remote access.”

In such cases, remote access delivers far better labor utilization, GE’s Wells notes. Instead of each plant functioning as a self-sustaining entity with a dedicated staff of automation experts, manufacturers can parlay a single expert across multiple locations. In the case of extremely remote locations, remote access can substitute for dedicated experts to support unmanned operations. “As cost pressures increase, local engineering staff can log in remotely and get the data they need to provide relevant advice to fix and improve things,” he says.

Moreover, the ability to tap into a remote site to gain access to critical data furnishes manufacturers with a larger data set for analyzing plant performance. “With remote access and the ability to bring data up into a centralized data store, you gain greater insight into what’s working well and what’s not and can start to identify things that aren’t obvious in a single plant, but that you can see in the context of multiple plants,” Wells says. GE Digital’s Predix platform is built around the whole framework of remote connectivity, he adds, with analysis and optimization applications built on top, including those assembled into its asset performance management (APM) suite.

Though 34 percent of survey respondents are building their own remote access systems—primarily web access to SCADA and HMI systems—a growing number (41 percent) are leveraging outside suppliers like GE Digital and others as they integrate expanded remote access capabilities into their product suites. In terms of top suppliers of remote access technologies, Rockwell Automation was the dominant vendor cited by survey respondents with 25 percent, followed by Siemens (18 percent), Schneider Electric (13 percent), ABB (11 percent), Honeywell (9 percent), GE Digital (8 percent) and a long list of others.

Next stop: IIoT-enabled predictive maintenance
The bulk of survey respondents have yet to put IIoT-enabled predictive maintenance applications on their dockets. But automation providers are expanding their portfolios in this area nonetheless, anticipating plenty of future demand. Beckhoff Automation, for example, recently released its ultra compact C6015 industrial PC, specifically geared for remote access applications. Emerson Automation Solutions’ DeltaV Mobile app allows process engineers and plant operators and managers to receive real-time alarm notifications and remotely monitor their processes from wherever they are located.

Moving forward, companies like Rockwell and GE Digital will lead manufacturers into predictive maintenance applications by leveraging remote access capabilities along with predictive analytics tools and IIoT platforms. Most companies starting down that path have high-impact assets that put a manufacturer at significant risk due to downtime, notes Umair Masud, Rockwell’s product manager for consulting and security services.

“If someone has a large compressor or rotating machinery and that asset is critical to the environment, they are absolutely invested in understanding the ways in which they can predict failure,” Masud explains. “Failure in any one of those areas can have a large monetary impact from a downtime or environmental perspective.” In contrast, less complex environments like a food and beverage plant, for example, typically have redundancy built into their production lines, so predictive maintenance might not be as business critical, he adds.

Whether it’s IIoT-enabled predictive maintenance or more traditional remote access applications for production monitoring and support, security remains the most significant concern and primary roadblock for expanding remote access applications. “You are playing with fire when you connect this stuff,” says Opto 22’s Newton. “If you’re connecting multimillion-dollar equipment to the Internet, it’s going to take a lot of education—it’s still a totally foreign concept to many.”

More in Control