Eliminating diagnostic delays
Manufacturing automation and control systems are increasingly complex, and when plant engineers have a problem, they are asking support service providers to do more. That means vendor support organizations must handle more calls, more quickly and provide better answers to hardware and software problems.
Manufacturing automation and control systems are increasingly complex, and when plant engineers have a problem, they are asking support service providers to do more. That means vendor support organizations must handle more calls, more quickly and provide better answers to hardware and software problems. While some support service organizations are addressing these pressures by creating knowledgebases for their service engineers to use, others are establishing online communities to enable more peer support.
The majority, however, are seeking methods of proactive support, which involves predictive monitoring of equipment and automated problem diagnoses—and even resolution—before a service call is made. The result is fewer emergency service calls, quicker resolution of problems when they do occur, and significantly less downtime for essential user processes. As an example of this shift, Invensys is using support center software from NextNine to provide such benefits to its customers.
Typically, software or hardware failure causes disruption at a plant and users contact technical support. The support engineer has to gather information on the failure or the symptoms, diagnose the problem, investigate the fix through a knowledgebase or other means, and implement the fix—all while plant processes are slowed or shut down.
NextNine’s Virtual Support Engineer is agentless Java software that securely resides at the customer site. It’s an automated service that does data collection, real time diagnosis, and command execution. It can generate proactive alerts based on equipment or process symptoms and securely send them to remote support engineers for additional action.
Gerry Murphy, director of services portfolio for Invensys, says his company has been offering remote support for 16 years, primarily for distributed control systems, based on software it built. The service is called Remote Watch (and used to be called Fox Watch.) “We had the ability for one of our experts to log in once a problem happened and diagnose the problem. That was beneficial to us, because it helped us understand the problems more quickly. We could decide whether to send a service engineer to help, but it was still too late to head off the larger degradation of process. Our goal for last five years has been to be more proactive, to find problems before customers find them.”
Invensys is building up a knowledgebase of if-then scenarios for problem diagnosis, but the NextNine software provides “a history that we can trend. We now have the ability to historize the data, so we can quickly see when it’s happening and predict what will happen next. We have a historian that we embedded, but now we do the data acquisition with NextNine,” says Murphy.
Knowledgebases are product-specific, but support engineers also have to understand what’s going on at the site. The challenge from Invensys’ point of view is that the products are so complex and there are so many variables, that it’s hard to have enough “experts.”
Software like NextNine’s “brings the problem to the experts, rather requiring an expert go to the problem. We can monitor globally and consolidate persons in one location,” says Murphy. Invensys has 1,200 installations of remote connection—clients drilling for oil in Russia or on platforms in the ocean—and almost 100 are using the new NextNine solution, he says.
“It’s part of our service agreement solution with DCS, and we’re looking at rolling it beyond: to safety systems and advanced applications,” says Murphy.
Annual Salary Survey
After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.
The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.