Remote operation of machines has perhaps been a universal desire of all industrial manufacturers. This is especially true for the industrial age we’re currently living in, where plants often spread on considerable acreage, and are commonly separated by continents, if not city-lines. The complexity that originates from ensuring the necessary up-time and visibility presents a very intriguing case into the practicalities of remote machine access.
Troubleshooting and error-rectification are two very common reasons as to why technicians and engineers travel to distant manufacturing facilities. Usually, the types of problems that derail production don’t require a physical visit, as they can usually be traced to a few lines of code, which is something that can be monitored and fixed remotely. A specialist’s ability to access an industrial asset remotely can help troubleshoot and fix almost 60 – 70 percent of all operating problems. Not only does remote machine access save the cost of travel but it also ensures that a proper response is issued from the desired technical department. If the need for a physical visit arises, the team would consist of the required technical resources, and the tool-set.
Another factor that’s playing a vital role in driving pressures on industries to adopt remote access strategies is the continued loss of technical experts to retirement. The expertise of the available workforce must therefore be lengthened, and where possible documented, something that is very convenient through remote troubleshooting technologies. There are other technological advancements at play as well.
The ability to access data without the need for large networks of trailing phone wires is greatly appealing manufacturers to jump the bandwagon. Wireless modems that allow communication via cell phone providers are now available from many OEMs and Sis, that can add a secure layer of connectivity between the Programmable Controller and the Technical Team.
However, there are some problems associated with the approach as well. Finding a cellular network provider that provides the desired level of bandwidth and coverage can be a daunting task. SIM cards with static IP addresses usually cost extra, and the usage fee can add quickly, an expense that would increase exponentially if the problems occur frequently.
Bringing the Internet into the Equation
Ethernet TCP/IP has imprinted itself as a major remote access technology in the industrial world. The throughput and reliability of the network is quite high, however, the security challenge poses a paramount threat to the integrity of data being sent/received.
And while VPNs provide excellent security from a technical standpoint, the level of complexity they bring with them does add to the list of difficulties. For instance, ensuring a clear path through the number of firewalls involved, keeping in account the different vendors’ configurations can be a cumbersome task, and make the system prone to several errors.
A supervisory local PC can be loaded with the necessary automation software and be set-up for remote access through virtual network computing technology. In this scenario, the software would ensure that all operations are carried out securely, while a fail-over option is kept ready-for-deployment.
This approach however does assume that an industrial PC is present in the manufacturing environment. This PC would have to maintained, and secured, which may bring additional costs and make the total cost of ownership higher. Furthermore, all issues of compatibility need to be resolved beforehand, to avoid a problem between the client/host ends at a later time.
In order to ensure 24/7 availability, the PC would have to be kept on constantly. A possible disaster recovery may need to be put in place so that in case one PC fails, the load shifts to the other.
Shifting to a cloud-based management infrastructure, and relying on an on-demand VPN connection can solve this issue, although significantly increasing the one-time and maintenance costs.
Typically, all industrial software would be remotely accessible through a VPN connection using the 443 outbound port. The port is reserved for website access using SSL and doesn’t present major issues for corporate IT departments. Furthermore, the method adds a logical segregation between the factory LAN and machine, making sure that no external entity (remote engineer, or otherwise) has access to the internal network of the factory.
By doing so, manufacturers can get top-of-the-line security, while getting their infrastructure embedded with a number of other benefits, such as management through a single secure interface, connection reports, traceability tools, and so on. This gives manufacturers unprecedented scalability, productivity & security, and allows manufacturers to look towards implementing cutting edge technologies like Industrial IoT in the workspace.
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