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COVID separations inspire alternative industrial network connections

Aug. 19, 2021
San Luis Obispo's water department uses GE Digital's iFix HMI software, Proficy Operations Hub for run-time processes and web-based Proficy Webspace software to monitor and control lift stations and other equipment

Just as absence supposedly makes the heart grow fonder, distancing and shutdowns required by COVID-19 have inspired many individuals to form alternative avenues to connect, access data, interact and collaborate.   

"COVID-19 caused more people and companies to think about safety, security, efficiency and accessibility, so we provided free, web-based licensing to remotely access our iFix HMI/SCADA software during the pandemic, which let users add devices and staffers quickly," says Ranbir Saini, senior product management director, GE Digital. "However, granting remote access to data isn't mobility's only goal or capability. It also improves safety by enabling online meetings that maintain social distancing; lets users monitor, control and maintain equipment; allows operators and managers to analyze their systems; optimizes processes with input from remote experts and more autonomous control; and improves commissioning and training."

For example, the water department in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has five divisions, including water and wastewater treatment plants, water distribution, wastewater collection and the Whale Rock reservoir, but they all had different, siloed SCADA systems, which couldn't capture the equipment operations data they needed, and didn't have alarming or trending capabilities. The utility recently migrated to GE Digital's iFix HMI/SCADA system, which gave its divisions real-time monitoring for immediate operator response, and increased efficiency and reliability.       

"When I started 27 year ago, we were using the same DOS-based program that we're still using today. When we're out in the field and have to make any adjustment to our pump station, we had to go back to our office because we couldn't make changes remotely," says John Millar, water supply operator at San Luis Obispo's water department. "iFix software lets us look forward to making adjustments on an iPad or other remote device to change pump settings and have accurate, hands-on operations to the stations at all times." 

Haley Parker, control systems technician at San Luis Obispo's water department, reports that, "Some of the consequences around our older systems is just the lack of data available. Right now, we have some systems that only have level available and maybe a pump run status, but they really don't have any alarming or trending, so dealing with issues is all word of mouth, incusing from residents. We needed to upgrade because we want better mobile capacity and better alarms. iFix helps us with our regulation. Our operators are able to monitor what's going on in the system and respond immediately, so we can meet our compliance standards. We're also standardizing on iFix because it lets us create screens easier by sharing them between divisions, and lets users jump on from wherever they are, whether they're out in the field or at home, which makes them more efficient and their data more reliable."

Jeremy Gearhart, wastewater collections operator at San Luis Obispo's water department, adds, "With the newer version of iFix, we'll be able to log in with any handheld device by using the iFix app. From there, we'll be able to control each individual lift station."

Saini reports that COVID-19 has been jumpstarting many digital transformation efforts, and that GE Digital's response centers mainly on its Proficy manufacturing software suite, which includes its Proficy Operations Hub for run-time processes, central management, deployment and commissioning tasks. He adds that GE Digital’s software lets users monitor, control and optimize their processes, and remotely perform knowledge transfers, quality evaluations and safety functions using iFix with Proficy Webspace software. “Many of these solutions started before COVID-19, but they became a lot more prevalent as people worked remotely during the pandemic,” says Saini.

To implement an effective remote access program, Saini advises potential users to adopt the philosophy used by GE Digital and its customers of not trying to do everything at once. “We recommend taking a certain problem or functional area that the user has, investigating how remote access could solve it, and then doing a pilot that can reduce downtime, show return on investment, and be scaled up as needed,” explains Saini. “Securing buy-in from existing staff and management is crucial, too, and working through what they want. It’s also important to not just rip and replace, and instead do remote access as an extension of existing systems.

“When you’re aggregating a lot of information from many sources, it’s vital to offer a better user experience that balances high-level views across multiple sites versus local points of view for individual processes and plants. Operations Hub does it by integrating with Webspace.”

Launched in September 2019, Proficy Webspace 6.0 is a web-based mobility solution that provides visualization and control from GE Digital’s iFix and Cimplicity HMI/SCADA software seamlessly across devices, including smart phones, tablet PCs, laptops and desktops. Webspace improves the way operators receive and react to insights anywhere, anytime through real-time visualization and control. Version 6.0 also offers enhanced encryption for better security and a zero-install HTML5 client.

Saini adds that a successful remote access program that unites production processes and users at all levels logically requires more collaboration between operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) staffers. "Because digitalization is pushing more functions to the cloud, successful remote access means treating the cloud as an extension of on-premise networks. The key is having a robust path from onsite to the cloud, which is why OT and IT have to collaborate," says Saini. "Users often implement a hybrid-cloud network in their plant, which can more easily relay, host and analyze data on a cloud-computing network. This is how some clients use Proficy Operations Hub and Proficy Webspace to give their users remote access, and it's how more users are putting primary HMI/SCADA calculations, software and functions in the cloud, even as their screens remain onsite."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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