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DMC connects manufacturer’s monitoring and control system to the cloud

Aug. 26, 2020
Mobility month: Day 10

Read more in the Mobility Month mini series!

If there's one lesson that bears repeating about mobility helping users cope with COVID-19, it's that activating existing but underutilized technologies, such as connectivity, networking and the Internet, can often provide the biggest boosts.  

"We don't really use the word mobility; we talk more about remote connectivity and monitoring, but we developed mobility, IIoT and connectivity solutions before COVID-19 showed up," says John Sullivan, project director of the Denver office at DMC Inc., a CSIA-certified system integrator in Chicago, Ill. "For example, we developed a mobile application in a pelican case that includes a laptop-based virtual machine, USB webcam, hardwired or 4G modem, and cables for Internet or other remote connections into the case. This was for users that couldn't travel as much or for clients that usually wanted us onsite. We've wanted to do more remote commissioning for a long time, but we hadn't made much headway before. However, with the pandemic, we and our clients often can't go where we could before."

Sullivan adds that DMC also uses its hardwired virtual private network (VPN) for linking to servers and cloud-computing services, and still travels onsite when necessary. "It's important to remember that remote monitoring, control and status checking are very different from commissioning and troubleshooting, and each has different connectivity and networking requirements," he explains. "There are many ways to tackle each problem, but it's important to understand which problem you're trying to solve. Also, there's no need to try and bite off everything at once because you can start small and work your way up. Some links can be made for work from home, but we also have to recognize things that can't be done safely or effectively if they're done remotely. Even the pelican case assumes the user has someone onsite who can use it."

For instance, Agri-Inject designs and builds chemical injection systems for agriculture, such as its Reflex products, which provide precise control with variable fertigation rates. This saves farmers windshield time spent traveling to monitor and control their irrigation systems, as well as time spent filling out manual logs of chemicals applied as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government entities.

The company also recently worked with DMC to create an IIoT-enabled pumping solution to monitor and control the fertilizer and chemical injection system, as well as create precise logs of Reflex's chemical applications and associated data. DMC developed a custom MQTT publish-subscribe driver that bi-directionally connects Reflex's Siemens S7 1200 PLC to a Microsoft Azure cloud-based broker to store data, and a custom React webpage to give end-users a remote version of their Simatic KTP400 HMI screen, so they could monitor and control field devices. The broker receives the data from the PLC, directs it to the correct application, receives commands from the website, and transmits instructions back to the PLC.

Consequently, the React webpage provides a complete user experience with all controls and functionality for the PLC, and includes access to user administration, additional units of measurement, and the ability to see historical data including flow rates, pressures, alarm logs, setpoints and usage. To ensure security and connection robustness, the path from the PLC to the cloud was established with OpenVPN. This new ReflexConnect system lets users remotely control their chemical injection systems, monitor equipment status and log data from anywhere. 

"Because many farms are distributed over many square miles, farmers usually drive to different irrigation panels," adds Sullivan. "Now, we can put in a cellular modem and link to Azure, and they can see alarms, control starts and stops, and change setpoints, alerts and alarms on their custom webpage without driving long distances. The webpage also lets them control their irrigation devices from a smart phone, and work remotely if needed due to COVID-19 or for any other reason."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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