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What impact is the cloud having on asset management and condition-based maintenance?

Cloud-based technologies are connecting plants, people, and machine data in new ways – but is the cloud right for you?

By Thomas Wilk, Editor in Chief

The Plant Services 2015 Disruptive Technology series is a quarterly look at technology innovations that are generating rapid changes in how plant managers and engineers approach their jobs. The series continues this month by investigating the ways that maintenance and reliability professionals are balancing the benefits of cloud-based technologies and applications with the risks – both perceived and real.

Are you and your plant ready for the cloud? Whether the cloud is addressed directly by name or folded into the conversation as "remote management" or "managed services," the industry is buzzing so much lately about the potential of cloud-based technologies to drive new benefits across the plant that it feels like a comeback of sorts is in the air.

Plant Services recently spoke with a range of industry experts to investigate what impact that the cloud is having on both asset management and condition-based maintenance (CBM), from the benefits being enjoyed by early cloud adopters to the challenges and considerations commonly experienced by plant teams on their journey to and through the cloud.

"Reliability is sort of the hot spot for cloud-based services or cloud-based models in the process industries," says Mike Boudreaux, ‎director of remote asset monitoring and analytics at Emerson Process Management. "The cloud itself is becoming a place where you can start small at a low-cost entry point and scale very big. Just getting access to computing resources and being able to deploy them very rapidly is one of the benefits of being in the cloud."

Boudreaux sees five specific drivers moving plant managers in the direction of cloud technology and remote monitoring services:

  1. Low-cost, highly scalable cloud-based storage and processing capability
  2. Innovative, lower-cost deployments of sensor technology, generally enabled by wireless capability
  3. More out-of-the-box connectivity solutions to the cloud
  4. The ability to connect experts to your data wherever they are and to do that in a sustainable way
  5. Collaboration capabilities enabled by mobile technology.

Other industry professionals echoed Boudreaux's sentiments, responding to a question about the cloud's potential with a single key query of their own: Is the cloud ready for you?

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Storage, sensors, and processing

The cloud's slowly growing acceptance has been driven outside of industrial manufacturing by all kinds of cloud services providing more mobility in everyone's life.

Table 1. Typical business needs that can be addressed with cloud-hosted solutions

Collaboration and work task execution •    Condition-based maintenance (CBM)
•    Workflows and certain types of procedural enforcement
•    Shared development and collaborative testing
•    Virtual reality simulation and training environments
Reporting and analytics •    Process analytics, especially for post-production optimization and root-cause analysis  
•    Remote diagnostics and system health monitoring
•    Long-term process historians
•    Manufacturing business intelligence
•    Process or batch summary reports
•    Energy management
•    Mobile summary reports, alerts, and notifications
•    Dashboards, KPI monitoring, and other web portal-based solutions
•    Manufacturing Execution System (MES) reports

Source: "The Cloud for Manufacturing." Invensys and Microsoft, 2014.

"With companies becoming more and more involved in international/global business, using cloud services is the only answer to many of the challenging questions like providing production, process, and equipment transparency beyond the limits of a single factory," says Martin Brucherseifer, consultant product engineer at Siemens.

“The exponential growth of information accumulated from various sources by organizations nowadays demands a highly scalable infrastructure for collection, processing, and analyses of a huge quantity of data in real time,” says Anand Nayak, marketing solutions manager at Meridium. “Organizations that adopt cloud technologies faster will continue to enhance their competitive advantages.”

Within the industry, large sectors such as oil and gas have relied on their own internal "private cloud" solutions for years, adds Brucherseifer. "They run elaborate condition monitoring programs and collect the data in their company internal servers, and they have the budget to run a highly trained maintenance team including data analysts," he says.

"A lot of cloud-based approaches are provided by vendors like Emerson to deliver services to customers, because users don't have the expertise to do the reliability monitoring that they want to do or need to do to be competitive," adds Boudreaux. "These approaches may be particularly welcome by smaller organizations, which may not have the IT infrastructure and support to do the things that they want to do or need to do."

For organizations such as these, the Software as a Service (SaaS) model is much more attractive and cost-efficient (Figure 1). With the SaaS model, the client pays a subscription fee to use software over the Internet. All software updates are included, and users can access the software and configure it to their needs. All other tasks associated with maintaining the software, including data backups and server maintenance, are handled by the provider.

"When you look at the normal manufacturing areas and facilities management areas, SaaS is very popular," says Kevin Price, product director at Infor EAM. "We can deploy a new image of our environment in a matter of minutes, where it would take a customer several days to get the people involved and then to get it set up and running."

Infor EAM product manager Mike Stone sees the cloud enabling advances in CM measurement and analysis through Internet connectivity with assets that alleviate the need for on-site servers. "Route-based monitoring and analysis are still needed for assets that are not connected," says Stone. "Using the cloud, measurements and analysis can be executed faster and correlated with more data."

Siemens’ Brucherseifer suggests that collecting data at a central point (i.e., the cloud) has several benefits for the transparency and analysis of this data. "The first and obvious benefit is the availability of all data from a central location, including any kind of evaluation and analysis," he says. "Here it does not matter if the data comes from multiple locations within one plant or several plants that may even be distributed around the world; this central access to all the data allows us to run various statistics for a comparison/benchmarking of the individual production lines or plants. It supports furthermore a common data security and backup strategy led by a professional IT team which would otherwise be left to each individual operation team of each plant."

Another factor is the reliability of using cloud-based compute engines as secondary options to help ensure business continuity in the face of unforeseen challenges. "When you have everything centered on a common data center or when you do it on-premise, there's a cost associated with it," says Todd Landry, corporate vice president of product and market strategy for JMA Wireless. "And when you need to distribute the data centers around, there's even a deeper cost of replication. A hybrid approach that uses a combination of on-premise and cloud provides you with an inherent mechanism for replication and for disaster recovery, as well as giving organizations a secure way to begin leveraging the cloud as a redundant or overflow mechanism for their compute engines."

"Hybrid solutions are mostly around the public sector, as we see a lot of these with utilities (i.e., water and wastewater)," says Infor's Price. "The movement is definitely trending upward to people going out of on-premise and single-premise, and going to more of a SaaS environment."

“When it comes to condition monitoring, cloud is poised to have a transformative effect,” says Dan Miklovic, principal analyst with LNS Research. “What we are seeing as early developments are a number of smaller, specialized condition-based maintenance and reliability-centered maintenance (CBM/RCM) predictive analytics, usually by industry, start to enter into the market. At the same time, bigger players like Meridium with their Asset Answers solution are showing the real potential of cloud in drastically changing the way we could think about reliability benchmarking.”

Shawn Lyndon, ABB senior vice president of product management – data analytics, sees the cloud enabling data-centric techniques more so than other CBM approaches, regardless of the specific condition monitoring technique.

"I believe that empirical approaches lend themselves in most cases to being able to build richer models, because the larger the data set, the larger the "n" typically, the more accurate and precise you can be with your algorithms and calculations," says Lyndon. "If you're doing vibration monitoring, or IR, temperature, pressure, oil analysis, with any of those methods, there's several different ways you can use that data. One, if you know that equipment really well, and you know what its physical thresholds are, you can model that equipment in software. The other approach is an empirical 'machine-learning' approach, where you take big data sets and you try to identify patterns that would then correlate with certain indications of failure. There is a third approach used a lot in-plant equipment, which is a bit like what GE Smart Signal, In-Step and others use, where you look at the deviation from normal. It's still a very empirical approach where you look at changes from normal, but that's based on an individual asset."

On the cost of warehousing all that potential data in the cloud, Emerson's Boudreaux says simply, "Storage is extremely inexpensive." For example, the messaging technology that Microsoft has developed is something like 2 cents for every million messages, so "it’s extremely inexpensive to get data into the cloud and to store it there. The real cost is in processing the data. Once you store data on a hard drive, there's not a whole lot of energy consumed to maintain that data on the hard drive. Once you start taking the data and using it to run software and algorithms on it, that's where the main cost is."

"Wi-fi has been nice, because it handles a lot of information," says John Bernet, Vibration Analyst, Training and Reliability Professional for Fluke. "I think we need to think about how to get the diagnosis as close to the machine as we can, because moving data and information around the plant costs resources somehow, whether in storage, or in transfer, or in labor walking around to collect it. If we could get that diagnosis down into a smart machine that is on the plant floor, and have a technician who has to be down on the plant anyway to monitor those smart diagnoses, then you have smaller packets of information you're sending either wirelessly or however you transfer it up to the cloud. When it comes to critical machines being monitored, maybe we just monitor them with a simple overall vibration and then only collect the detailed information once a week, or when we need it."

ABB’s Lyndon sees challenges bringing intelligence too close to the machine. "One, you need to maintain that very complex sensor," he says. "You also increase the costs of your sensors; obviously that's coming down more and more, but it still has an increased cost. The sensors are incredibly sensitive – they're electronic equipment, and you've got them near equipment that's either rotating or heating up, or going through all sorts of changes, which is really tough on sensors. We have one customer where they put really complex sensors on some of their devices, and they found out that the cost of their condition maintenance effort went up and not down, because they were doing more maintenance on the actual (failing) sensors. Storing data is nowhere near as expensive as doing lots more maintenance."

At the moment, adds John Benders, senior vice president of product management – SaaS and cloud for ABB, the industry may not know enough about which data are important to make decisions today on which data get captured. "If you make decisions at the sensor or at a lower level as to what information gets put up in the cloud, what you're potentially missing is the something which may appear to be irrelevant from the perspective of the sensor level. When taken in conjunction with other things that are happening in different parts of the plant, it all of a sudden may become critical or extremely relevant, and you're going to miss the opportunity to draw on those sorts of correlations if you're not collecting all the data."

Fluke's Bernet also identifies another opportunity for cost reduction. "If you have a consultant or expert there, they are probably charging a pretty good fee, so a lot of smaller companies will say, I can only afford for you to come out and do the top 10% of my machines, and I can only afford for you to come in once or twice a year. If you have the staff on hand that has some smart tools that can help them do the data collection and the basic diagnoses themselves, then they do the monitoring, they do the diagnosing, and then the consultant just gets called in for problem machines or remote consulting. This way, you do a lot more machines in the plant, and you do them a lot more frequently."

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Securely out of IT's way?

Paul Lachance, president and CTO of Smartware Group, underscores the cost benefits of not needing to involve IT in cloud-based maintenance programs. "Cloud-based software lowers the total cost of ownership (TCO) for organizations," he says. "Why build up internal IT resources (people, hardware, and related resources) when you can let the vendor do all that tough and expensive work?"

The cost benefit may be there, but it can be a different matter entirely to trust your data to an entity that is not a full-time member of your own IT organization.

Says Joshua Carlson, global director of cybersecurity services for Schneider Electric: "As we look at the cloud, it's going to be very important that we continue to focus on security, focus on a standard that says this is how we're protecting it, this is how we're measuring ourselves. For example, with NextNine technology, that's a point-to-point connection secured through a variety of mechanisms which provides the user at a plant site the ability to request assistance from somebody up in the cloud, and then allows that assistance to come back down. During cybersecurity conversations, we have to show our customers that these are secure systems and show them which standard we are measuring ourselves against."

"We surveyed our customers on this recently and got some good feedback," says ABB's Lyndon. "Anything that allows an intruder to get into the operations system is a huge threat, and that's what they worry about most. The second one is privacy: Specifically, if this data gets out, what can people know about me, my company, and what we're doing, that I might not want them to know? The third one is performance, especially if you've got a system that you're moving to that may be near real-time, and it's informing operational activities. Fourth is data access. For example, let's say you stop offering your cloud service, or you go away, or something happens to this (cloud) product. Can I get my data? How do I keep using it? Now that it's not in my control any more and it's a service, what is the go-forward path?"

ABB's Lyndon adds that there can be some regional nuances to some of those concerns. "For example, in Europe, privacy rules tend to be a lot more stringent. One thing that really bothers Europeans is that if you're dealing with a U.S.-based company, those companies come under the jurisdiction of the Patriot Act, and they don't like the fact that the U.S. government has access to their data."

At Emerson, says Boudreaux, "We help set up conversations with our user’s IT organization, mostly to prove the independence of the networks and noninterference, as well as the security of the connectivity and the data." This means, he continues, "In the different cybersecurity zones, can someone hack onto the cellular networks and use that as a jumping point to other networks? Do we have the VPN and encryption from our gateway to the cloud, and do we have the right security in the cloud to ensure that someone can’t get into the network and obtain some sort of IP or otherwise sensitive data?

One of the first security considerations should be an evaluation of how sensitive the data are that would be stored off-premise. One rule of thumb to consider is that any machine data that are not critical to the physical output of the production process may be a good candidate to be hosted on the cloud. This would include condition-based maintenance data, as well as optimization, analysis, reporting, and alerts/notifications (Table 1).

"From a reliability perspective, the data that we're collecting is generally quite benign," says Emerson's Boudreaux. "The data being collected isn't business proprietary data, and it's not generally your control-system data. If you're talking about acoustic or vibration data, it's not as sensitive as process, temperatures, pressures, and flows. Sometimes the data will flow up through the control system if you're doing some of the more advanced type of performance monitoring, but a lot of the data isn't even process variable related."

LNS Research’s Miklovic considers the security of the cloud a benefit specifically to SMB customers. “Unless you are a big enough company to afford your own IT group which then has a strong security group, what you get with Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure or one of the other emerging platforms is going to be far better. SAP and Oracle are examples of companies that also can provide cloud-based solutions and still give you security, and they themselves will even provide the application(s).”

"Microsoft is very open about their data center investment, their security model," says Boudreaux. "It's an impressive list of certifications they have from a security standpoint. That's their competency, so when it comes to security management, they have certifications that generally most companies don't have. If people are asking whether the cloud is secure, one of the things to ask is whether their on-premise servers and storage systems in their traditional architectures are more secure than what is in the cloud. Quite often, they're actually less secure, because IT isn't always a core competency."

Smartware's Lachance agreed: "It’s interesting that this is a concern, particularly as modern CMMS vendors typically have more secure servers than even clients themselves.  For example, our server farm is SSAE16-SOC1/SOC3 certified.  This is not trivial – you have to have an ultra-secure environment to pass this audit."

"There's a lot of organizations that are doing industrial automation, hear the word 'cloud', and right away say 'no, thank you', says Schneider's Carlson. "I think that's why stand-in terms for cloud like 'managed service' or 'remote management' have become more of a feasible option, where you're still exposing the customer to the Internet through those cloud-based opportunities and solutions, but you're making it less a situation of, "I'm going to put all of your data up on the Internet."

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Remote access and expertise

When it comes to cloud-based maintenance tools, one of the common barriers to entry for organizations is having the in-house expertise to do something with the data once it's in the cloud. For example, says Emerson's Boudreaux, "If you're doing statistical analysis of a variety of different forms, where a lot of it isn't new, you may be using existing methods applied to a new domain. Reliability experts often don't have the skills to do that kind of statistical analysis. In general it requires a high level of expertise, and that's not always scalable at the facility level."

Ironically, one of the emerging benefits attributed to the cloud for both asset management and CBM is the ability to tap into a much wider pool of experts and technicians.

"CMMS hasn’t changed a great deal over the years simply based on features and functionality," says Smartware's Lachance. "What has changed is the ability to reach many more people through the cloud. Today more technicians can easily add/edit work orders, look up histories, and other commonplace activities – from anywhere in the world. Organizations have the opportunity to utilize an enterprise-wide approach and stop treating each facility as an island."

Lachance adds that this change for the better also includes reporting and analysis. "Not too long ago, you needed a complex system with time and labor-intensive deployment to have comparative data for 3-5 plants.  You no longer need to do this. Modern development platforms, metrics, reporting, KPIs, and other analysis/reporting tools make achieving high-quality standards a much easier and more attainable goal - even in a cloud/browser platform."

Cloud solutions also can drive safety benefits by making it easier for a safety or compliance officer to quickly review and disseminate information to other team members. "Safety is a priority for most organizations," says Lachance. "Modern CMMS is assisting with integrated Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) solutions to maintain and track safety and inspection programs. At the end of the day, modern CMMS is making compliance easier and more reliable."

On the level of using the cloud for predictive maintenance, most agreed that cloud-based programs will drive increased collaboration across the board. Siemens' Brucherseifer says, "I see this not as much as bringing in new skill-sets as more of a better use of existing skill sets. With data being centrally collected they are globally available to every expert within the customer's company. This means that an expert at one location can provide more value to the company by being able to consult to other facilities as well. This eliminates the company's need to have an expert for everything at every location, and the expertise available throughout all facilities can now be evenly shared."

"In the past you may have had an expert in your plant, but now imagine that expert has retired," says Fluke's Bernet. "Now you have a technician doing that job, and the consultant is the only alternative. With cloud-based systems, the technician – especially with the smarter tools and smarter technologies available – does not have to be the expert to take the measurements and do the analysis. If they run into a problem, sending that information over the cloud is a perfect way to troubleshoot (Figure 2). You have fewer experts or consultants, and they're spread all over the country."

Schneider's Carlson sees benefits from the security side as well, especially when it comes to industrial networks. "A lot of times what I find is that engineers are not trained from an industrial automation perspective to understand cyber security, to understand the threat. They're trained from an HMI perspective and from a process safety perspective to understand when this bar gets this high, or when this number reaches this threshold, lights flash and things blink. If the people are not adequately trained, or the organization does not have the time or funding to train those individuals, then the next best option comes to the cloud, or the managed service, where you have somebody at a generalized security operations center receiving those data feeds from the plant, from the systems, from the cyber security components within that organization, and then is able to report on unauthorized or suspicious activity."

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Mobility and collaboration

The final factor driving this cloud resurgence is the ubiquity of mobile devices, both in and out of the workplace. The ability of mobile devices to securely access business and machine data stored in the cloud is driving new forms of business agility and knowledge capture at the organization level, and has the potential to drive greater loyalty and productivity at the employee level.

"Mobile is all about collecting data, and driving data in real-time so you have accurate information," says Rick Veague, CTO at IFS North America. "In asset management and in field service and maintenance this has become a requirement, because the idea that you're going to somehow after the fact write down or catch up with what you did just isn't realistic in today's very fast-paced world. Instead, you want to be able to react very quickly to changing events, changing environments, and continually optimize your bottom-line results - that constant re-optimization is the agility that most of our customers are looking for, and mobility is really an enabling technology to get there."

While agreeing that cloud-based services are enabling a better level of connectivity with mobile devices, Emerson's Boudreaux adds, "That also fits closely with the Generation Y expectation of having connectivity to their data with easy access to it; and having a collaborative environment, so they can share information with their colleagues, collaborate with people, hold group discussions, that sort of thing."

"Retaining employees is important, and mobile devices are the stock in trade for how those workers collaborate -- it's how they live their lives, and by extension it's how they do their jobs," says Veague. "Without that kind of platform, I think you're closing out a big part of the workforce. With that mobile device and the right kind of systems in the back-end, you start to have the ability to collect some of that data from the older workforce, such as work instructions, notes, blogs, wikis, and other forms of collaboration."

"I think the Millennial workforce has a couple of characteristics that are going to change the way people approach traditional CM/EAM technology delivery," says JMA Wireless' Landry. "One, they have a much more open mind to accepting things like cloud-based technologies. Two, everything about their thinking is un-tethered – they can’t think of why you would want wires...they don't even want wires from their mobile device to their ear buds. So, if you think about it, they don't think of the workplace as something fixed in geography, fixed in time, or tethered – it should be a very adaptable and always-on world."

Veague says IFS has developed a specific security strategy to provide mobile data security assurance. "First, we try to minimize the amount of data that's actually resident on the user's mobile device. The other thing we do is that we use the cloud as an intermediary device. I think it's an uphill battle for corporate IT to tell users what devices they're going to use, so what we do at IFS is to have the apps that we provide on mobile communicate through an intermediate cloud-routing service, rather than having to open up the corporate network to allow these devices directly on the network to carry out and synchronize information."

Ultimately this results in a secure connection to the cloud, and from the cloud a secure encrypted connection back into the IT platform (whether that's also in the cloud or on-premise), which effectively provides what amounts to an air gap between the device itself and the user's choice of back-end solution. "If the device does pick up viruses or malware of some kind, those aren't transmitted through your firewall and onto your corporate premise," says Veague.

Overall, says JMA's Landry, as the manufacturing industry moves toward a mobile, untethered state, "It's more than untethered people – it's untethered equipment, it's untethered analysis points, and already we're seeing a huge influx and talk in this industry about machine-to-machine and  Internet of Things (IoT).  Data collection and more touch points across the facility are being put in place with the desire to eliminate pre-wiring, so that the factory is more agile. We will see mobile (cellular) chip sets embedded in things like pallets so that they can collect pallet payload data, location information, weight, etc. and provide this to the supply chain system in real-time. This means that plants will have to leverage more of these untethered mobile-connected technologies, and as they do, what it will mean for them is greater efficiencies and greater adaptability in the factory design and delivering agility into the next-generation factory."

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Why move to the cloud?

"Rather than start by learning how to move into the cloud, I would suggest you want to figure out why you want to use the cloud," says Emerson's Boudreaux. "Cloud technologies move people outside of their normal capabilities, so you don't necessarily want to go to the cloud just because it's there."

One point of resistance is that management often is “afraid” of maintenance, says LNS Research’s Miklovic, in the sense that “they view it as a cost center, and the IT part of it is what they need to pay to keep the plant running, so CFOs and senior management have been reluctant to force maintenance to look at cheaper and better ways to support getting their job done."

"This question is one of the reasons why JMA Wireless is investing in this space," says Landry. "At present, this question doesn't have a single perfect answer to it. People need to think about the cloud as a range of different services, meaning that it can be cloud computing, it can be cloud networking, it can be cloud-based wireless and voice services. We have the organization that can help answer, 'What are you really trying to accomplish?' and then identify the right partners and ensure that we put in the right systems so that it actually works."

"I think there's a lot of benefits to be had from a customer's perspective from efficiency gains, without necessarily reaching the goals that we've been talking about along the way, where you have these huge data sets that you can bring together, says ABB's Benders. "It's those benefits that are going to start getting customers to start moving toward the cloud, things like the ability to use software more as a utility rather than as something that you have to buy and then run yourself."

ABB's Lyndon adds: "Customers are also really interested in benchmarking their own data. They don't want to just know how their pump, drive, turbine, transformer is performing in their plant; they want to know how it compares to other customers who are using the same solution in a similar setting and with the same type of asset. How is it performing for them, and which vendors' equipment is performing better than others? We at ABB are starting to provide those kind of analytics for our customers so they can do that kind of analysis, and as you go to the cloud, the ability to run those analytics across other customers is really interesting."

IFS' Veague suggests that mobile access and collaboration will play an increasingly strong role in these decisions, regardless of the plant team's size. "On any given day, what you thought you were going to do to optimize your business results and meet your compliance requirements and your SLA commitments may be very different by 9 a.m. just based on how the day unfolds," he says. "If you're not in constant contact with where your maintenance or service force is or what they're working on, whether they're ahead or behind, or simply what they need, you then can't really optimize what they do for the rest of the day, and it makes it very difficult to achieve your business objectives."

In the end, says Smartware Group's Paul Lachance, it may be as simple as recognizing the “Eureka!” moment when it happens. "Plant teams realize that they simply need Internet connectivity and a device – whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, desktop, or laptop – and they can get started (in the cloud)," he says. "The low TCO helps, too. At this point, unless an organization has serious security restrictions, everyone should be considering the cloud."