Recent years have seen a steady increase in the demand for remote asset management services, and both the number and scope of service offerings is growing. While historically, companies have been slow to relinquish operational control to outsiders, convergence of business and technology challenges and improvements in information technology (IT) security are alleviating their concerns. Those that manage to overcome any initial degree of wariness quickly realize the rewards of strategically outsourcing surveillance, analysis, diagnostic and maintenance activities to remote service providers.
Driven by the economy
When the recent global recession wreaked havoc on the demand for manufactured goods, drastic measures were taken. “Plants have scaled back their operating time,” says Steve Carlson, global product manager of InSite Services for Rockwell Automation (www.ra.rockwell.com). “Many that once ran 24/7 are now one shift only, so the production in that shift must be flawless.”
It’s not just in discrete manufacturing. “Equipment uptime and production levels are especially important in process plants,” adds Vlad Bacalu, product manager for Advanced Technology Services (ATS), www.advancedtech.com. “Very few customers have redundant equipment and, therefore, they can’t shift production to other equipment. This makes uptime essential.”
Consequently, the methods chosen to ensure reliable uptime increasingly involve third-party expertise. "Because there is increased pressure on manufacturers to do more with less, they are turning to solutions that maximize maintenance timeliness and effectiveness,” says John Schroeder, business development manager, Remote Services, ABB (www.abb.com). “Remote access typically provides significantly improved technical support response times. Having these services available 24/7 is hugely beneficial to manufacturers.”
Reducing downtime by even 10 minutes can generate significant cost savings. Some downtime incidents will be eliminated completely as a result of remote predictive maintenance services. Cost efficiencies are further amplified when remote monitoring equipment and software is bundled with a service contract, because it allows the customer to avoid the capital expense of purchasing the technology while also reducing associated labor and training costs.
Ease workforce constraints
Skills gaps in the employee base are widening because of high attrition and low replacement rates, and employers are challenged to keep up. “I think we will come out of the recession with the skills shortage more acute. Many companies cut personnel during the last 12 to 18 months, and those people are generally not going to come back,” predicts Jonathan Hakim, president, Azima DLI (www.azimadli.com). “Additionally, we’ve found that when companies launch reliability programs, they often are defunct in two or three years because it is very hard to develop and sustain the expertise internally.”
Remote services can support a move to the next level. “All of our predictive work is outsourced because we don’t have reliability experts or trained people in the field who can make the call on a unit’s overall mechanical status,” says Rasmus Dorrington, rotating equipment engineer for Colonial Pipeline Company (www.colpipe.com). “Some of our pumping units were installed in the early 1960s. We used to rely on preventive practices, but two years ago we began some basic predictive maintenance, including overall vibration readings, oil sampling and analysis on the mainline piping unit.” The Atlanta, Ga., facility recently added full-spectrum vibration analysis with help from Azima DLI.
“Greater skill sets and knowledge are required to support open technology, and it is difficult to maintain an adequate level of expertise at every site,” says Shawn Gold, remote services global program manager for Open Systems Services at Honeywell (www.honeywell.com). “For example, a distributed control system itself is not generally complex, but running it on top of a Windows environment increases the workload.”
Remote service providers fill the labor gap with a supplemental workforce. “We are keenly aware of our customers’ requirements to use their technology investments in the most cost effective way,” says Bruce Oyler, manager of Global Asset Reliability Services for Emerson Process Management (www.emersonprocess.com). “We augment plants that have complicated equipment, but lack in-house expertise, and we provide second-opinion services, which are good for resolving disputes about whether an OEM or the plant owns a problem. Our intent is to give our customers service capability where they lack the skill sets or funding to build a program internally.”
Support sophisticated technology
Keeping up with constantly changing and highly sophisticated information systems is an ongoing effort. “The technology in the plant is not getting any easier to support,” says Carlson. “Customers are increasingly installing control, manufacturing execution and process systems that are integrated together over the network and supply chain, which increases the complexity of the systems.”