Is Remote Management of Assets in Your Future?
But what happens if your plant is short on personnel, or short on expertise? Stuart Harris, vice president, asset optimization at Emerson Process Management says, “In an environment where maintenance and reliability expertise is being lost to factors like aggressive cost management, shrinking capital budgets, overcapacity, and employee turnover and retirement, building a virtual team through remote analysis provides a cost-effective asset management option. Companies,” Harris notes, “want information they can use to make business decisions, but they may not be able to support the resources for maintaining the technology.”
Many middle-sized plants find themselves in just such a dilemma. “Remote analysis gives them a way,” Harris points out, “to acquire, process, and communicate information for business decisions.”
Ultramar’s McCormick has reservations. “For vendors and system integrators,” he says, “I would see a big disadvantage in not being really involved locally.” He questions the desirability of relying on a third party for support.
This, of course, assumes that a third party will be doing the management remotely. There are two basic schools of thought in remote asset management. The first is the corporate consolidation (See Figure 1). In this system, asset management remains in the hands of the corporation, but is done on a remote basis by a team of managers and operators co-located in a single location, regardless of the number of plants they will monitor. The other is to outsource the entire program to a vendor.
FIGURE 1: CORPORATE OVERSIGHT
|Remote asset management allows centralized experts to monitor many plants simultaneously.|
A Remote Possibility
As we’ve noted editorially in previous issues (see “,” Sept. â€˜04, p58) the time is not far off when it will be possible to operate and monitor remotely a fully functioning process plant.
Charlie Piper, product manager for fieldbus programs at Invensys points out, “From a technological standpoint, today, it makes little or no difference whether the person is sitting 1,000 ft. away or 1,000 miles away from the device. Technologies such as Windows 2003 Server with terminal services, plant networking, and .NET can deliver a Windows-based application, or even a Windows desktop itself, to virtually any computing device anywhere in the world.” The issue, he says, “is very much a matter of determining who will actually be sitting on the other side of the computer monitor and what you want them to do.”
Of course, what Piper fails to mention is the difficulty of handling communications and security associated with remote asset management. When you pin down all of the suppliers of remote asset management technology, these vendors admit that the issues of security and communications downtime are the critical parameters that will define the success or failure of a remote asset management implementation.
“If there is only a small need for manual intervention, the benefits of local asset management are mostly psychological,” says Gregg LeBlanc, director of product and industry marketing for OSIsoft. But, and it’s a big one, he says, “Clearly connectivity is a weak point for management. Our software can buffer information when a link is down, and backfill the information into a central system once the link is restored. All calculations can be made aware of a data outage, and recalculate to catch up with the analyses that were missed. However, if the link is severed and an abnormal situation arises, local human intervention is still required.”
Security too, is a bugaboo. The more links to the outside world, the greater the risk is for a control system’s network to be penetrated. If, as the vendors pontificate, it is possible to have a remotely operated plant, with either just a skeleton maintenance crew or a roving maintenance group that moves from plant to plant, it is also possible to have batches and recipes go completely awry thanks to some malicious code inserted through all those remote monitoring communications links.
If remote asset management is going to live up to its hyped reputation, it will have to do so by providing both robust and difficult-to-penetrate communications systems.
Neither Here Nor There
“The best approach,” says Scott Hillman, asset management program manager for Honeywell Process Solutions in Phoenix, Ariz. “is a combination of both local and remote support and asset management. Local asset management is required to coordinate and plan asset activities within a site based upon a priority management system.”
Different functional groups within a site manage different assets, and thus some prioritization is required to balance the reliability needs of different assets against one another and against the overall production requirements of the site. Even within a functional group different assets have different impacts on production and productivity.
A one-size-fits-all approach, or an approach that focuses solely on one asset type is doomed to create conflicts and actually has the potential to reduce overall plant productivity. Thus, a plant needs generalists on-site who can manage data, collate information, keep individual applications running, and make priority calls between needs across the site.
However, in today’s highly competitive environment, few sites can afford to keep experts on all classes of assets available on site–thus the need for remote asset management. Remote asset management capabilities allow companies to centralize experts in key locations to support multiple sites. Remote manageme nt also allows the use of experts from the manufacturers of the individual equipment manufactures, or best-in-class industry experts engaged on a contract service basis.