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New automation industry technologies seem to follow a consistent path from inception to adoption. First, suppliers and research organizations tout the technology as a game-changer, a paradigm shift, a must-have—pick your cliché. Magazines such as this one write about the new technology, but we are skeptical, as are prospective customers.If some end users and/or system integrators see possible competitive advantage, then these early adopters try out the technology to find out if the benefits outweigh the costs. Simultaneously, suppliers fight it out to establish their proprietary technology as the standard. Meanwhile, trade magazines and websites try to find real application examples, but often fail, as actual end users are few and far between.
If end users determine the technology delivers promised benefits and required rates of return with acceptable risk, and if suppliers agree on standards and interoperability, then the technology is widely adopted.
However, this process can take years or even decades.
Remote access has traversed this path successfully in the process industries, proceeding from supplier promotion to widespread end-user adoption in less than 10 years. How do we know? Because a host of end users and systems integrators are eager to share remote access success stories. But, before we get to these successes, read on to see the advantages that remote access provides to process industry end users.
Remote access has no standards-making organization touting its capabilities. It's not proprietary, and there isn't widespread agreement on how to accomplish it, yet it's growing at a breakneck pace. When something comes along that is truly useful and beneficial, end users jump on it.
By using remote access and other automation, McCall Farms, a manufacturer of Southern-style foods in Effingham, S.C., has tripled in size over the past five years, rising from 75+ million pounds to over 250+ million pounds of produce per year.
Jeff Crisp, maintenance manager at McCall Farms, uses a wide range of PC-based remote access technologies that enable him to access process equipment remotely from different plant buildings, from his phone and from home, if there's an urgent need to do so. "I can securely and easily dial into plant systems from my house in order to troubleshoot," says Crisp.
"Using our Beckhoff Automation PC-based control systems, I can watch any process in the plant run from my office," adds Crisp. Access from his home is via a VNC server. "If something must be fixed in the middle of the night, this is a very attractive option."
Other users tell tales about how remote access has allowed them to centralize their engineering operations, cut travel costs, get help from control equipment vendors, analyze problems and even avoid traveling to dangerous parts of the world (Table 1)
There is no overwhelmingly popular method for remote access—process automation professionals are using software technologies such as phone dialing systems, cell phone messaging systems, virtual private networks (VPN), virtual network computing (VNC) and various PC-based software programs that allow remote users to view and even control PCs at the local site.
Control equipment vendors are also joining the party, allowing remote access via cell phones apps, providing software for remote access to their equipment and systems, and making money by requiring site licenses for remote access.
The cost of getting remote access to your control system varies from AutomationDirect's $4.95 cell phone app to access its C-More HMIs up to much more expensive and complex systems with gateways, servers, VPNs, security appliances, terminal servers, site licenses and so on.
Based on the responses we got for this article, it seems like everybody in the process industry is using remote access in one way or another, for a variety of purposes ranging from equipment diagnosis to optimizing control systems.
At AOC Resins in Collierville, Tenn., remote access allows AOC to keep all its engineering experts in one central location, where they can tend to the needs of seven processing plants spread across the country. (See "Optimizing Process Operations From Afar," which shows how AOC can tune batch reactors at any of its sites from its home base in Tennessee.)
Likewise, Nor Cal Controls, a systems integrator in Placerville, Calif., used remote access to solve a similar problem with some unfamiliar software. "Recently, we were in the process of providing balance-of-plant tuning for AEP at one of its new power plants," says Bob Lopez, control engineer at Nor Cal. "We purchased ControlSoft's InTune PID tuning software, but because of our unfamiliarity with the software and the GE ICS PID controllers, our process models were generating tuning values that were completely off in magnitude."