Remote monitoring: Turn your data into a productivity gold mine

Are you considering remote monitoring services for your equipment? Be sure to consider all the right variables.

By John Boville, Schneider Electric

Remote monitoring services offer asset managers and maintenance engineers the opportunity to outsource critical machine monitoring to automation equipment suppliers. Handing off the task of machine monitoring to third-party providers holds the potential to help plants cut costs, increase responsibility, and improve uptime.

For the remote monitoring services model to be successful, though, a number of variables need to be addressed. Most important: Plant managers must ensure that their plant’s infrastructure, equipment, and facilities are sufficiently modernized to take advantage of recent improvements in industrial data communications. Managers who are able to capture data at both the machine and plant levels will have a much better understanding of their manufacturing processes and therefore be better able to identify opportunities to improve their enterprise efficiency.

The challenge for many plant managers is that they capture all of this data from the machines but aren’t properly analyzing it. However, with the right strategy and analysis tools, plant managers can turn that data into a productivity gold mine. The insights that this data could produce can help plant managers reduce and prevent downtime, save on energy costs, and allow for ongoing monitoring and maintenance of plant machinery.

In the current manufacturing environment, plants that put a premium on driving efficiency – modernizing equipment and facilities to be the most productive for the least cost – will ultimately be rewarded.

The role of improved connectivity

In the past, being able to commission and troubleshoot a programmable logic controller (PLC) or programmable automation controller (PAC) program in the field required access to proprietary software along with specific operating knowledge of each software environment. This resulted in added time and staff training costs because it was critical that the right personnel with the right software be present at the controller.

Thanks to connectivity improvements and the emergence of fully networked architectures within plants, those days are over. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) means that plant managers can leverage analytic tools for commissioning, diagnostic, and maintenance purposes.

Imagine a situation in which a PLC is not communicating with one of the variable-frequency drives it is controlling and a problem arises. Without additional information, the problem cannot be accurately diagnosed. The root cause could be an issue at the device level or a physical connection issue. Service personnel could be dispatched to a site just to find the problem was caused by something as simple as a disconnected cable. Remote monitoring allows for more effective and efficient diagnosis of problems and therefore speedier resolution of them.

Remote monitoring services: The business model

With manufacturers making significant efforts to cut costs and boost productivity and profitability, plant managers have begun outsourcing the monitoring and maintenance of their plant’s critical data to control equipment suppliers. By outsourcing this responsibility, plant managers are able to focus more on efficiently managing their resources, and less on actively managing their data.

The potential benefits of remote monitoring services are numerous. Firstly, the collection and analysis of operational data from plant equipment on a daily basis allows managers to focus on improving equipment's productivity. Machines' embedded diagnostic capabilities are designed to detect and report slight variations in production; this data can be used to provide early fault detection. This, in turn, can serve to limit equipment downtime and reduce maintenance costs by proactively addressing issues before they cause a plant shutdown. In addition, when analyzed appropriately, this data can provide the foresight needed for optimal maintenance planning.

Remote monitoring services that make data available also provide a crucial first level of support. Servers can be installed inside a customer’s firewall to securely send data to a remote monitoring center. There, the data can be analyzed on an ongoing basis and used to provide guidance to plant operations and maintenance. 

Remote monitoring service providers will observe the status of communication links and control variables, but in many cases, this data won't be published to the human-machine interface (HMI) because it is not need-to-know information for day-to-day operation. Including this data would add clutter and complexity to the interface. Remote monitoring allows for more-effective use of essential plant resources.

The constant influx of new technologies into today’s manufacturing environments makes it increasingly important for plant managers to look to new technologies to keep their plants competitive.

Plant managers who are looking to optimize their productivity may want to consider outsourcing their data monitoring, analysis and reporting duties to automation equipment suppliers. Outsourcing these services allows plant managers to spend more time managing their physical resources and less time analyzing data. They can focus their people and money where they will get the biggest productivity gains and resulting improvements to their bottom line.

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