How to achieve remote automation success

In a remote, yet connected world, this is how to keep pace with the changing face of automation in manufacturing

By Ram Ramamoorthy March 31, 2021

The world we live in is not the same world we once knew. Unprecedented global events and new technological advances are forcing manufacturers to adapt and work in an ever-evolving, more remote business environment. Change is inevitable as industry feels the impact of this new reality and the challenges it presents from both a business and resource perspective.

To move forward and stay competitive, manufacturers must look at new ways of doing things — new approaches, and new automation technologies and applications. Now more than ever, they must digitally transform their legacy control systems, set up secure remote infrastructures and establish remote application support capabilities to optimize, maintain and sustain their facilities. Manufacturers also should develop remote management strategies where they leverage smart technologies, mobile devices, remote access connectivity and communications tools to ensure critical infrastructures remain up and running efficiently.

Smart manufacturing and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)-enabled technologies can help manufacturers capture, collect, store and analyze data to aid in decision-making. For more efficient operations, they must look at recent trends in high-performance human-machine interfaces (HP-HMIs), alarm rationalization and predictive maintenance. Industrial personnel must adapt to a newer and more secure way of doing their jobs to mitigate risk of data breaches and social engineering attacks. Companies must do all this and more with fewer resources as the industrial workforce evolves.

Resource considerations

Industrial personnel, mainly the baby boomers, are retiring for various reasons, but personal safety tops the list. Add workforce attrition to this above-normal exodus and the combination places more responsibility and tasks on personnel who already have heavy workloads.

Those left to fill the ever-widening skills gap have little bandwidth to perform updates to keep new and legacy hardware and software secure and optimized, finding themselves reacting more to higher-priority tasks. Some may also lack the required level of experience to troubleshoot and diagnose system failures or the daily process issues that come up, which can lead to equipment failure and costly downtime.

As manufacturers transition their legacy control systems to more modern digital technologies (e.g., IIoT, data analytic tools, digital twins/digital thread, artificial intelligence, augmented reality/virtual reality, machine learning and so on) and set up remote infrastructures, they must weigh the pros and cons of in-house resource bandwidth issues and the associated costs.

  • Is it realistic to do a capital expenditure (CapEx) project in-house — buying the hardware/software and installing it using existing resources?
  • Have personnel ever participated in at least one major control system installation or migration project before or set up remote applications?
  • Are personnel trained on critical automation tasks?
  • Can personnel effectively diagnose system failures or deal with the daily process issues that may arise?
  • Who will train automation personnel on new system upgrades and infrastructure, along with support for necessary remote automation applications?
  • Do personnel have the capability to remotely monitor systems and keep them optimized, maintained and running 24/7?

Companies often require help from a third-party partner who can perform a needs assessment and skills gap analysis, as well as provide operational and specialized knowledge on the latest technological advances, platforms, remote infrastructure and applications. Cost and downtime, however, are always major factors for any business.

Consider the potential cost associated with system failure or downtime. No one wants lost production and product quality issues. Many companies can’t afford to have an employee fielding potential problems 24/7. Instead, the focus should be on the daily operational tasks at hand.

Reducing the time in-house personnel must perform or be trained on critical automation tasks can realize a cost savings. At the end of the day, if the third-party solutions and services deliver a positive return on investment (ROI), then the benefits exceed costs for any process improvements or potential system failure or downtime.

Remote access: Data is king

Interconnectivity with today’s industrial control systems is essential from the business office down to the plant floor and throughout all remote locations. It is possible for personnel to communicate and access data from anywhere in the world. For many manufacturers, however, legacy control system limitations prevent open communication to smart field devices, subsystems and higher-level enterprise-wide systems, making it difficult for personnel to access and monitor critical data.

This is where the latest advances in smart technologies, wireless technology, high-speed network connections, open systems, predictive maintenance, alarm rationalization and HP-HMIs come into play. Leveraging these technologies can help manufacturers remotely manage and monitor critical automation and control systems and access data in real time.

For instance, with the right smart technology, devices and tools, mission-critical data can be captured, stored, analyzed and used effectively to run a facility and meet customer demands. Smart devices improve asset utilization, increase connectivity and enable near-real-time, data-driven decision-making throughout the enterprise.

Data historians (e.g., Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk Historian, OSIsoft PI, and AspenTech’s Aspen InfoPlus.21) play a key role in acquiring and storing selected process automation data from instrumentation and control system sources at the heart of automation processes. Today, historians have become the manager’s HMI. Managers now can rely on the historian and other software to provide real-time production information remotely on their mobile devices. They can make informed decisions based on historical trends, key performance indicators and other system data reports in real time.

HP-HMI graphics are key to getting critical data to the right people at the right time and can help improve an operator’s ability to manage the operation more effectively, increasing response time to alarms and other abnormal situations (see Figure 1). An alarm rationalization team can justify, validate and document the alarms an operator sees to minimize the number of alarms required to keep operating conditions efficient and safe. Add alarm management software to the mix, and the alarm monitoring responsibilities can be dispersed to personnel who are not working in process control areas.

Overall, many software tools and applications are available to help manufacturers determine which real-time data adds value to improve operational efficiencies and increase their competitive edge. Direct connectivity to process control networks and advanced data sharing brings many benefits but can also lead to the potential for cyberattacks and safety risks.

Remote security and support

Data breaches resulting from cyberattacks or social engineering attempts can be devastating. To protect intellectual property (IP), a manufacturer’s information technology (IT) personnel need to ensure safe and secure remote firewall access to systems, giving unique access via username and passwords to all, including third-party solutions providers. Security coverage to prevent hackers goes two ways in remote setups, so high priority should be placed on it from both sides of the firewall.

In addition, aging legacy systems present a challenge as hardware and software support, security updates and software fixes for older releases become obsolete. Manufacturing personnel will need to safeguard their IP with critical updates, reboots and patches for system security and reliability.

Many manufacturers use a customized Windows Server Update Service (WSUS) deployment for periodic patching. Process servers and stations should be updated on a regular basis with respect to new patches for enhanced security and protection. Typically, Microsoft provides these updates weekly.

Process control system patches must be original equipment manufacturer (OEM)-tested and approved. An OEM often allows a limited number of patches and posts them on their site for use on their systems. Manufacturing personnel must identify the recommended patches for their systems and then install them.

A control system may or may not handle the installation well, which can result in an unplanned shutdown for potentially long periods of time and cost millions of dollars in lost production. Be sure to apply only OEM pre-approved, tested and vetted patches to reduce the potential for undesirable outcomes.

With a diligent patch management approach and strategy, manufacturers can keep cyberattacks at bay and feel confident knowing their systems will stay up and running safely, securely and efficiently with little to no interruptions. All require proper implementation and execution to avoid incurring a large amount of unplanned downtime.

Remote management and monitoring: Outsourcing

Outsourcing remote management and preventive maintenance services can help ease the workload for in-house employees from having to perform a variety of critical tasks. These tasks include, but are not limited to, incident management, system backup and recovery, data analysis and retrieval, software updates and patches, real-time monitoring of software and systems, machine learning, predictive analytics, IT/operational technology (OT) hardware refresh, online automation and system programming edits.

For preventive maintenance on hardware and software, many vendors and OEMs offer subscription-based hardware refresh services, which includes a service level agreement (SLA) with defined response and resolution to maintain the equipment. Typically, a small upfront CapEx cost is required with the majority expensed, usually over a 60-month timeframe. This infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) concept is gaining traction in the process control world.

Depending on the solutions or services required, consult a trusted advisor who has experience performing numerous projects on a variety of platforms and in various stages — including the upfront plan, design and build stages working directly with OEMs to the sustain and continuous improvement stages. For ongoing 24/7 support, a proactive third-party remote management and monitoring team can handle any issues to prevent any safety lapses and increase efficiency while saving costs in the long run.

Manufacturers must embrace today’s fast-paced technological world and take advantage of all it has to offer in the form of digital technologies and remote applications. In doing so, manufacturers will be able to alleviate resource bandwidth issues, leverage mission-critical data remotely in real time to make informed business decisions and increase operational productivity with improved efficiencies in a safe manner.

The time is now to update or migrate legacy control systems and set up robust, secure remote infrastructures and capabilities to optimize, maintain and sustain facilities to meet consumer demands and keep ahead of the competitive curve. Making these changes is not a matter of if it will happen but when — and the sooner the better.

This article appears in the Applied Automation supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering.

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Ram Ramamoorthy is operations manager, strategic manufacturing solutions at MAVERICK Technologies.