6 April 2020

Why has remote access to plant equipment and assets become more relevant?

In these times of social and physical distancing, I can’t help but feel torn about the abundance of information we have available to us. There are times that I want to shut down every electronic device capable of delivering data. On the other hand, in moments that feel like clarity, I can concentrate on what’s relevant and make clear decisions that move things ahead in a positive way. It is also in those situations when I am reminded that the technology causing this overload is also what enables great things to happen.

How can strategic investments in technology pay off?

For those of you who follow me on LinkedIn, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I’m an avid believer in technology and all the good it can do when properly implemented. As a remote worker for the past five years, I am comfortable using digital tools that help me perform my job from literally anywhere. However, this was not always possible. I remember when I received my first work tablet. I could pretty much only use it for email. There was very limited access to our company’s intranet and customer relationship management database, and apps were in their infancy. Today, however, I can do everything on my phone, tablet, and laptop, and even pick up on the laptop where I left off on my phone and vice-versa. This development did not happen overnight; rather, it is the result of a strategic decision by my company to continually invest in relevant technology focused around business continuity and flexible workforce planning. It is in rare and unpredictable situations like the one we’re in now that we’re reaping the full benefits of those investments.

With that said, I’d like to highlight a few areas where readily available technologies can support businesses via remote connectivity. The following is my perspective based on my experience and what I have observed in the industrial marketplace.

How does remote connectivity support businesses?

The ability to remotely access, monitor, and control systems has become a lot more straightforward in recent years, especially with the advent of industrial-grade Wi-Fi, which allows devices such as tablets and phones along with assets to be securely connected to the internet. Other remote connectivity options are also available, including cell phone connections, radio transmission, and more, so the best option typically depends on individual circumstances.

  • Remote service support is enabled through a tablet or phone that a service technician located somewhere else can securely connect to. Through the real-time video feed, the onsite and remote technicians can see the same thing, so nothing is “lost in translation.” Augmented reality functionalities of the system make it possible to write notes or highlight areas that will be overlaid on the tablet screen to simplify communication and troubleshooting. Such a solution could be used for interactions between equipment vendors and end-users or by a plant maintenance technician calling an internal subject matter expert located off-site.
  • Although not necessarily reliant on a plant wide Wi-Fi network, remote access to distributed control systems (DCS) or programmable logic controllers (PLC) can also provide some clear benefits, primarily in the areas of troubleshooting and data collection. The remote connection is secured by using a VPN tunnel node installed on the network, which is managed centrally and complies with the latest security standards. This allows a subject matter expert, for instance, to dial in to and check the overall setup and control loops, or to make small adjustments to the DCS. Remote connection to a DCS is hardly a new approach, but one that has become highly relevant in the current environment.
  • Remote asset monitoring allows you to monitor assets located in a remote area of a plant or perhaps away from available infrastructure. In that case, a simple data collector connects to any sensors located on-site, such as a radar level device for measuring the volume in a tank. From there, the data goes through a cell-based connection or Wi-Fi to the cloud, where it is made available on any device through various dashboards. In addition to having near real-time inventory transparency, it also relieves somebody from having to drive on-site and take measurements manually.

These examples illustrate that there are solutions available to support remote working, even for functions that may not traditionally be considered remote. Whether or not to make the investment depends on each situation, but perhaps it could mean the difference between being able to run your business or not. So, if you do end up deciding to move ahead, put a multi-year roadmap together and take small, incremental steps towards that big goal.

Which technologies have you implemented lately?

In closing, as this pandemic continues around our world, the country and our communities, I hope that you, your families, and friends maintain their health so we can soon return to whatever will be our new normal. Stay safe and healthy!

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