Remote Monitoring

How to maximize your resources using remote analysis

Looking for a low-risk way to move from reactive to proactive maintenance? Consider a remote monitoring program for your plant.

By Jacob Swafford, Emerson Process Management

Organizations are spending more money than ever to collect and store data. While collecting data from equipment and processes is nothing new, what has changed is the accessibility of data. Because the Internet is everywhere, more plants are connected than ever before. Plants that used to be considered too remote to manage are now participating in organizational asset monitoring and are constantly collecting data on the status and condition of their equipment.

What’s more, sensing technology has come down in price dramatically. It is now no longer cost prohibitive to put sensors on devices that in the past would have been left unmonitored. Coupled with the surge in cloud computing and a steep drop in data storage costs, this increase in sensor installation means that operators are expected to both collect and manage more data than ever before.

Technology advances come with new challenges, as these same operators have less and less time to evaluate that data. Also, effective data analysis requires a specific and defined skill set, and many process engineers are retiring without a surge of new analysts to replace them.

With a shortage of available analysts and the constant need to do more with less, many organizations are looking at options for managing machinery health and condition remotely. Whether an organization relies on its own in-house experts who are situated at a headquarters location a great distance from the plant, or looks to an external organization to monitor its resources and keep them apprised of impending incidents, there are many options that don’t involve keeping expensive, hard-to-find analysts and engineers on site.

The risks of languishing data

If collected machine health data languishes in storage without being analyzed, an organization is missing a key step toward improving operations, quality, safety, and environmental performance. Not analyzing machine health data means potentially missing indicators of imminent upset or process events.

In the case of an organization that is doing no analysis whatsoever, the outcome of missing these important trends can be catastrophic. In worst-case scenarios, essential equipment can run to failure because of a missed issue, resulting in major loss to equipment and product as well as the possibility of a disaster that creates damage and safety risk at the plant.

Even in a situation where process failure is not catastrophic, the upset to the organization’s workflow can mean the inability to meet essential commitments, resulting in fines and lost business. While the risk of equipment repair costs is great, it often pales in comparison to the business costs of the downtime associated with a failure.

But while plant management knows the risks of running an organization without proper machinery health analysis, finding the resources to accomplish the task often seems out of reach. Beyond the cost of hiring qualified engineers, it can easily take six to seven years to get newly hired engineers trained to a level where they can function on their own.

Even if a plant has qualified engineers on staff who are trained and ready to analyze machinery health data, these engineers often do not have the time to sit in an office poring over data readouts. High-level, experienced engineers are going to be out in the field, solving complex problems. While they are doing that, the engineers are not in the office looking at data and considering the problems that may be on the horizon.

Moreover, some organizations have essential equipment in hard to reach locations, or locations that are difficult to live in. In these situations, the process of hiring experienced engineers becomes even more difficult. Even if management is willing to pay a premium for engineers who will work in undesirable locations, often the engineers themselves are unwilling to accept these positions, leaving these sites seriously underserved.

The benefits of remote monitoring and analysis

Remote monitoring and analysis offers a number of benefits over having traditional, on-site engineers performing machinery health data analysis. For organizations that are currently performing little or no machinery condition monitoring, looking to an outside source to provide analysis services can be a low-risk way to move from reactive to proactive maintenance. For organizations that are already performing a significant amount of analysis, using remote monitoring can mean bringing machinery health analysis to underserved sites or easily supplementing available resources during high production opportunities or peak volume seasons.

One of the most significant values of remote monitoring and analysis is that it doesn’t require organizations to make drastic changes to the way they already collect machine health data. Whether operators are collecting data manually with portable analyzers, or a plant is set up with a top-of-the-line continuous prediction and protection monitoring system, the collected data can be retrieved from off-site and analyzed.

In addition, remote analysis does not need to be completely hands-off for the organization collecting the data. Wireless technology and video collaboration have made it easier than ever for operators to take part in the remote analysis of data, and the problem solving surrounding an issue. What’s more, when a problem arises that is difficult to isolate, or seems to resist primary repair plans, these new technologies allow analysts and operators (who can often be separated by hundreds or thousands of miles) to collaborate with an equipment OEM to troubleshoot.

There are several benefits that are specifically related to partnering with a remote monitoring services provider. The best condition monitoring engineers are going to be ISO 18436-2 certified. With only a small group of all engineers certified at the category 3 and 4 levels of this standard, the very best condition monitoring experts are going to come at a premium. For many organizations, these engineers are simply going to be out of reach due to budgetary constraints.

Remote machinery condition monitoring services should be performed by engineers carrying at least category 3 certification. For an organization that has no engineers to analyze data, this means that the plant will have access to solutions and ideas that conform to industry best practices at a fraction of the cost of hiring individual certified engineers.

For an organization that already employs engineers, having access to category 3 or 4 analysts means not only having a greater chance of catching minor but significant problematic trends in equipment health but also having a subject matter expert who can complement the work being done by engineers or technicians on the plant floor to enable more effective, quality decision-making by plant managers.

Moreover, in an organization that has its own engineers, using remote monitoring and analysis services can also function as a training tool. Whether an organization’s engineers are new or experienced, they will have the opportunity to work with other experienced subject matter experts to solve problems. This collaboration can function both as a “second opinion” in a complicated situation, or as an opportunity for new engineers to hone their proactive maintenance skills with the help of someone with vast experience in the industry.

Ensuring security and privacy

The primary concerns organizations have when researching the possibility of remote monitoring and analysis are security and convenience. For organizations that need more security in order to ensure data privacy, the company has the option to host all of its data and have full control over who has access and what is available. In these organizations, the client is responsible for all network and data management, providing both in-house analysts and/or service providers with login credentials allowing them to do all work inside the organization’s firewall. This ensures that sensitive data will never leave the organization’s servers, and that there is no risk of a data leak.

In the case of organizations that have less stringent data privacy needs, it is possible to increase convenience and decrease capital costs by sharing data with analysts using high quality cloud services such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services. This allows the organization to lower capital costs by limiting or eliminating information technology and server equipment costs while still maintaining the standard security that any business would require.

There are many reasons why an organization may not have the resources to monitor their equipment health in-house. In some cases, financial resources may be tight and operators are simply having to do more with less. In other cases, an organization experiencing a boom might need to supplement the resources it already has, but there are not enough of the right people to support all of the extra work.

In either case, the simplest solution is to look beyond the boundaries of the plant. Whether collaborating with internal resources at a distant location or contracting the work to an experienced partner, current technology makes it easier and more cost-effective than ever to implement a remote machinery condition monitoring plan.