Defining Strategies for Remote Access to Manufacturing Assets

Jan. 13, 2007
Manufacturing asset downtime is usually very costly, and one tool that can help is remote service support. However, this requires some form of remote access to manufacturing systems, and by now, most modem-based approaches have been severely limited or shut down. This cannot continue, because remote service is an enabler for some advanced asset management initiatives. Different levels of secure and manageable remote access must be developed to accommodate variations in manufacturer strategies and capability levels.
Remote service methods are probably most popular for complex machines requiring highly specialized and hard-to-find service skills, but remote access can also be justified in many other situations. Consequently, a range of solutions is required. The semiconductor industry defined a comprehensive approach, E-Diagnostics, but adoption has been slow, even within the industry. No other industry has addressed the issue as a group.

Recently, IBM announced an agreement to acquire MRO Software, a leading asset management software supplier, and to integrate it with IBM’s Tivoli group, which focuses on management for Information Technology (IT) resources. The close alignment of software for management of traditional assets and IT assets is not new—traditional asset management suppliers have taken this
perspective—but IBM’s move into management of traditional assets certainly adds an additional level of validation to the strategy.

With security and compliance concerns growing, why not just cut all external service connections? This may be the answer for some industries—nuclear power, for example—but others must perform a comprehensive analysis, weighing risk against the consequences of asset failure.

The cost of lost production is a simple calculation and easily justifies some action, but justification for enabling remote service must also be made in comparison to alternatives. One alternative is to have a specialist on site. This may not be practical when there are too few specialists available, when failures are rare (even though cost of downtime is high) or when there is too much diversity.

Another alternative might be to use relatively high-risk connectivity for short durations, with heavy involvement from IT security specialists. This may appear attractive, especially when failures are infrequent. But a closer look shows that risk associated with manual, ad-hoc methods is too high, coordination is very stressful and benefits associated with advanced service support opportunities are precluded.

More is needed

Where it was once sufficient to provide secure communications to a service provider, additional measures must now be implemented to strictly limit information exposure, reduce liability and satisfy reporting requirements. Strong security is still a fundamental requirement for protecting operations from unauthorized or accidental access, but remote access solutions must also provide more granular control over the capabilities given to remote service providers.

Manufacturers should conduct a comprehensive examination of opportunities and required functionality for remote service agreements. Information exchanges in e-mailed files will be sufficient for some service requirements, and more elaborate solutions with higher speed communications will be justified for others.

ARC is researching remote service access for next generation manufacturing and will report results in the security session at the coming Orlando 2007 Forum. Tell us about your requirements, practices and results. 

Robert Mick, [email protected], is Vice President, Emerging Technologies, at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass.