Take remote monitoring to the edge

Advanced edge controllers enable remote monitoring techniques to supplement standard industrial automation practices

By Kyle Hable March 26, 2020

Individual consumers have embraced all sorts of remote monitoring video and mobile applications as they have become available over the last decade. Improved technologies applied to cameras, wireless networking and drones have enabled many types of personal use. Now, many of these technologies have made their way into the industrial automation space and are enabling a host of remote monitoring advances. 

The result is a new class of advanced edge controllers that can provide any application with innovative remote monitoring capabilities. This article examines the progression of remote monitoring and describes some previously unobtainable benefits.  

Remote monitoring for any industry 

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is one way smarter field devices are changing how users can be informed about remote conditions. As the cost of hardware has come down, more computing power can be deployed closer to the field, which means simple data monitoring can be enhanced with advanced analytics and displayed anywhere (see Figure 1). 

There are many remote monitoring benefits for industrial users including: 

  • See where you cannot be 
  • Personnel can monitor more 
  • Reduced personnel travel 
  • Reduced need for personnel to enter hazardous areas 
  • Better operation through key performance indicator (KPI) presentation 
  • Quicker reaction time 
  • Enhance simple monitoring with advanced preprocessing, computation and analysis 
  • Monitoring can be added onto existing systems or built into new systems 
  • Wider visibility enables new insights 
  • Improved collaboration with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). 

The most fundamental result of remote monitoring is it extends the visibility of users beyond their physical location, which in turn means people can see more. For operating companies with many sites, some widely dispersed geographically, remote monitoring gives a small maintenance department additional reachand makes it more convenient for experts to be engaged as needed. From a practical standpoint, reduced personnel travel saves time and money, and makes it easier to attract and retain highly skilled laborAlso, any technology that minimizes worker exposure to any form of hazard is welcome. 

Many manufacturing and process operations can be characterized to a degree by KPIs. Remote monitoring is an ideal solution for collecting the data required to create KPI calculationsand then transmitting this data or the resulting KPI calculations to a supervisory level so users can take actionSome local responses will be quick, such as adjusting a setpoint for more efficient operation or dispatching maintenance personnel to solve a problem. 

Other times, the information supplied by remote monitoring will undergo more extensive processing (either preprocessing at the edge or computations in a supervisory system) and analysis to determine longer term trends. For exampleprogressively increasing power consumption can signal equipment wear due to increased friction in rotating equipment caused by impending bearing failure. 

While new automation systems should be designed with remote monitoring in mind, much of the existing equipment in service can benefit when remote monitoring is added. Aimportant result of remote monitoring initiatives is when the wider visibility, such as across many sites or types of equipment, empowers new insights never before possible when these targets were observed on a one-by-one basis. This occurs when many assets of a similar type, such as hundreds of machines deployed worldwide, can be observed and compared to yield best practices for operation and maintenance. 

Another key opportunity involves using edge controllers and remote monitoring technologies to provide advanced collaboration between end users and OEM machine builders, enabling an improved customer service model and new business models not possible before. Possibilities include: 

  • Online updates and upgrades 
  • Digital site service agreements 
  • Prescriptive field service deployments 
  • Timely consumables replenishment. 

Individual machines operating as part of a complete factory can take advantage of this service delivery model. OEMs can update software configurations and enable optional features in coordination with the end user, and without travelling to site. 

Digital site service agreements may include attractive features such as an extended warranty if the OEM is able to monitor equipment performance. This holistic approach to manufacturing can include the ability to deploy field service personnel when trouble is detected and quickly enough to avoid downtime, as opposed to classic calendar-based maintenance. Consumables can be delivered automatically on an as-needed basis, so they are always on hand for customers performing their own maintenance. Service organizations can even use this approach to accommodate third-party machines. 

Industrial remote access progress

Until programmable logic controller (PLC) and human-machine interface (HMI) digitalization efforts became commonplace decades ago, industrial monitoring efforts were local and mostly manual. Experienced operators would look, listen and feel to interpret how machinery was working, and if failure was imminent. 

Once PLCs and HMIs were employedit became possible to add improved monitoring and diagnostic capabilities. However, these informative features remained relatively local, and any kind of remote access connectivity was slow, difficult to manage, insecure and expensive — or all of theseFor many years, modems or dial-out annunciators working over the plain old telephone systems were a basic means of remote monitoring. Eventually, networking technologies such as Ethernet, wi-fi, internet access and mobile data improved to a sufficient level for enabling improved connections. 

First, users gained the ability to use their laptops and vendor software to connect over a site network to PLCs and HMIs to visualize operation, and even change programsIncorporating virtual private networks (VPNs)already commonly in use with most company information technology (IT) departmentsmade it possible for these same connections to be made from remote locations via the Internet. Advances in mobile electronics and modern web technology brought remote visualization to handheld devices. Cloud connectivity and mobile apps reduced the complexity of implementing remote connections. 

The latest industrial technology advances have circled back to the factory floor. Instead of incrementally upgrading PLCs and HMIs, a new category of edge controllers is available to supersede control, visualization and connectivity features of traditional automation — and improve upon it with new edge-based processing and analytical options. 

Edge processing advantage 

Edge controllers combine classic control with cutting-edge analytics and other capabilities. They include a real-time operating system with a general-purpose operating system, all housed in one package industrialized for installation in the field right next to operating equipment (see Figure 2).  

The real-time operating system provides deterministic control much like conventional PLCs, while the general-purpose operating system uses Linux to add many types of advanced computing and communications capabilitieslike a standalone PC. The real-time and general-purpose operating systems function in an independent manner, but also can securely communicate for cooperative applications. 

For existing sites, an edge controller can be added as a supervisory data concentrator for many other automation platformsAs an industrial product, it is able to communicate with these systems using standard protocols, and even hardwired input/output (I/O) signals. The modern PC-like aspects of an edge controller enable it to take things a step further because it can be used for advanced calculations and analysis on low-latency data, right at the industrial edge where the data is sourced. 

Processing data at the edge allows analytics to be performed on full fidelity data with no compression. Results are produced quickly, allowing immediate action, and cybersecurity concerns are allayed because the data remains in the edge controller. 

For further analytics, an edge controller can communicate data up to higher level systems. It also can host web pages to play a key role as part of an HMI system, and perform many other tasks, concurrently without affecting real-time control, which remains separate. This separation extends to external communications, as the real-time controller and the Linux platform each have their own Ethernet port. 

New and retrofit installations can move beyond data processing, using the edge controller as a complete control, computing and communications platform. In addition to the capabilities described above, edge controller automation can act on computational results and play a more interactive remote monitoring role. Edge controllers thus unlock many new remote monitoring possibilities, as shown in the following applications. 

Drone deployment. For widely dispersed operations, such as well head sites or pumping stations, several edge controller features come into play for advanced remote monitoring. At remote sites, an edge controller can used to evaluate and monitor trouble signals, and it can be integrated with onsite video cameras for handling motion triggered events. Notifications can be relayed to supervisory systems via an appropriate lightweight network transport protocol, such as messaging queuing telemetry transport (MQTT).  

Edge controllers also can preprocess these trouble and event signals to introduce a level of protection against false trips. As an example of an advanced application, an edge controller could automatically deploy a drone when trouble is detected, using it to investigate the trouble location. Any detailed information gathered can be relayed to operators so they can better identify the problemand then respond quickly and effectively. 

Multisite food and beverage producer. Industrial processing and manufacturing companies with multiple similar sites are common. Many food and beverage producers have automated continuous processing systems and OEM packaging equipment at many different regional locations (see Figure 3). Each site has local operations and maintenance personnel. Some manual methods of problem tracking are possible, but this creates a lot of overhead. Because the sites operate in aindependent manner, they may all be expending effort to solve similar problems. 

One such company was experiencing problems with pallet handling equipment at many locationsEach site was individually investigating problems such as out-of-specification pallet styles, failures of certain equipment or component brands or even procedural issues such as operators stacking the pallets too high. 

This company installed an edge controller at each site to provide centralized remote monitoring of the key trouble indicators. This enabled them to determine commonalities among sites and pinpoint root causes, with results communicated to each site for improved operations. 

Power generation trash shredders. A power generation facility operates heavy trash shredding equipment, which tends to show initial signs of needing service in the form of increasing electrical current draws and vibration. 

Edge controllers can be used to directly control many types of field equipment, or they can be installed in parallel with existing systems. The key is an edge controller’s exceptional ability to act as an information gathering and remote monitoring platform. 

In this case, the end user was not directly using the information. Instead, the equipment OEM incorporated edge controllers for fleet monitoring to gather real-time data and track faults, initiate SMS and email alerts for dispatching service personnel. This enabled condition-based maintenance, and even informing their design groups in support of product improvement. 

Other OEMs can offer remote monitoring as a value-added service for end users to reduce downtime and improvefficiency. Some OEMs are now providing machines as a service, charging users based on a machine’s output, instead of selling machines. In these cases, remote monitoring is essential to maintain a high level of throughput, and to closely monitor production levels. 

Final words 

Edge controllers are already available to perform any type of traditional industrial automation, while adding contemporary computing features. These industrial edge controllers are uniquely positioned to provide advanced remote monitoring capabilities, helping end users solve problems while saving time and money. 

Kyle Hable is a product manager responsible for integrating and advancing IIoT and edge technology across Emerson’s machine automation solutions product portfolio. He has spent his entire career connecting data and embedded things to Ethernet networks, working hands on with both IT and OT customers implementing custom and standard solutions across a variety of technologies and industries. 

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

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Kyle Hable is a product manager at Emerson Automation responsible for integrating and advancing IIoT and edge technology across Emerson's machine automation solutions product portfolio.