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Remote Monitoring of Automation Systems, and the Internet of Things

In recent years, remote monitoring systems have been fueling the proliferation of industrial automation, partially due to significant advancements in the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. These systems allow industries to have a clear, continuous, and comprehensive view of their processes, production equipment/machinery, and personnel, as well as monitor the working conditions and environmental factors that may affect their final products and occupational safety.

In this article, we’ll look at how IoT technologies can be leveraged for remote monitoring of industrial automation systems as well as the benefits of implementing IoT-based remote monitoring systems.

What is Remote Monitoring? 

In general, remote monitoring entails the use of state-of-the-art, web-connected devices positioned inside a target environment or equipment. In this manner, the web-connected devices continuously collect relevant data, record it, and transmit it to a centralized location, mostly a cloud storage device or a server database.  

Essentially, remote monitoring systems are designed to track, visualize and control the operations of a given automation system via IoT technologies such as transmitters, data loggers, data processing and analytics, wireless networks, and cloud storage. In that regard, a remote monitoring system can be defined as a combination of electrical, mechanical, and electronic components that collect, analyze and act upon a huge amount of information, thereby providing an automatic response to changes in process parameters according to a predetermined algorithm. 

A typical remote monitoring system will include the following: 

  • Sensors/Detectors for measuring physical quantities 
  • Modules for collecting primary information 
  • Network connections for transmitting the collected data 
  • A central computer system with high-performance Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) for human input 
  • Actuators, which are either electronic or mechanical devices, that take action based on the remote system’s feedback or operator input. 

What Are Automation Systems? 

An automation system is an integration of sensors, controllers, and actuators designed to perform a specific function with minimal or zero human intervention. Automation technology is largely applied in manufacturing. Actually, to most people, automation means production/manufacturing automation. In this article, we’ll limit our discussion to automation systems used in the manufacturing sector. These systems are fundamentally categorized based on their flexibility and integration level into manufacturing operations.  

There are three types of automation systems in manufacturing, distinguished as: 

A) Fixed Automation Systems

Fixed automation refers to an automated production facility in which the equipment configuration provides a fixed sequence of processing operations. The equipment used in such a setup is designed to perform efficiently with those fixed operation sets. In effect, fixed automation systems contain programmed commands in form of gears, wiring, cams, and other hardware that cannot be easily changed over from one production style to another. 

Fixed automation is characterized by high capital investments and high production rates. It’s thus suitable for discrete mass production and continuous flow systems. Examples of fixed automation systems include distillation processes, machining transfer lines in the automotive industry, conveyor systems in the beverage industry, automatic assembly machines, and continuous flow systems in paint shops. All the aforementioned systems rely heavily on mechanized machinery to perform their fixed and repetitive processing operations, in order to achieve large production volumes.  

B) Programmable Automation Systems

Programmable automation facilitates a changeable sequence of processing operations and equipment configuration using electronic controls. Thus, with this type of automation, non-trivial programming efforts are needed to reprogram sets of machine operations.

Programmable automation systems produce products in batch quantities ranging from a handful of dozens to several thousand units at a time. For each new batch, the production equipment has to be reprogrammed and changed over to accommodate the new product design. This equipment reprogramming and changeover can take time to accomplish, which results in a period of downtime followed by a production run for every new product batch. Production rates of programmable automation systems are generally lower compared to those of fixed automation systems.

Numerical Control (NC) and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine tools as well as industrial robots are good examples of programmable automation systems. For example, in CNC machining, a program detailing the production process is coded into computer memory for each different product design, and the associated machine tool is then controlled by that computer program.

C) Flexible Automation Systems

Flexible automation is an improvement of programmable automation. The disadvantage with the latter is the considerable amount of time needed to reprogram and change over production equipment with each batch of new product design. This results in significant production downtime, which is expensive. But in flexible automation, the variety of required product styles is adequately limited to allow for quicker and automatic equipment changeover.

Flexible automation systems are widely utilized in computer-controlled manufacturing processes with high product varieties and low-to-medium production volumes. Because such systems do not require grouping of identical products into batches since it’s possible to produce a mixture of different product styles one right after another.

Leveraging IoT Technologies For Remote Monitoring of Automation Systems  

Internet of Things (IoT) can be defined as a system of interrelated computing devices that use embedded systems such as sensors, processors, and communication hardware to collect, record, transfer and act on the data they acquire from a given environment or process. They also have the ability to share that data over a network, by connecting to an IoT gateway or other edge devices without requiring human-to-computer or human-to-human interaction. The shared data is then transferred to cloud storage for local analysis.

Often, IoT devices are smart and web-enabled, so they can communicate with other related devices over a network and act on the real-time data that they acquire from each other. They actually perform most of these tasks without any human intervention, although users can interact with them when configuring and setting them up, providing instructions, or when accessing the data they collect.

Remote monitoring of automation systems benefits greatly from leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. For example, IoT devices can be used to observe the efficiency and energy consumption of an automated pump system, by constantly monitoring its operating parameters and transmitting that data to an operator interface like an HMI for visualization. With this information, the operators can then derive incredible insights regarding the pump’s performance when all factors are considered.

Also, if temperature and vibration sensors were to be added to such a system, common pump faults such as cavitation, high friction, bent drive rods, and bad bearings can be identified as well.

How Exactly Does An IoT-Based Remote Monitoring System Work? 

The first step in IoT-based remote monitoring is the collection of real-time data about the specific parameters you want to monitor in your automation system. This could be anything from power consumption, and operating conditions to output levels. Normally, high-quality IoT remote monitoring systems use a variety of sensors, actuators, and other IoT devices in order to function efficiently. The sensors remain connected to the automation system as they monitor each of the specified parameters in real-time, looking for any signs of faults.

In the second step, all the data collected in the previous step gets stored in remote cloud servers. From the cloud servers, the captured operational data is analyzed to see if everything is functioning as desired. Because faulty machinery would indicate different operating conditions, different outputs, or stop periods.

In the final step, the IoT remote monitoring devices have already completed their task of collecting, recording, and transferring data. So, from here operators can access the data through HMIs or other operator interfaces and manipulate it accordingly. However, if the remote monitoring system includes controllers and feedback devices, then it can act on the collected data and provide an automatic response to any process changes based on a predetermined algorithm.

Examples of Remote Monitoring Systems Leveraging IoT 

Overall, the use of mature IoT technologies is making it easier and more economical to implement remote monitoring connections to automation systems. These connections are normally made to Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) and Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) over the Internet or internal intranets, often through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) router. On the other end of the remote monitoring connections are IoT devices such as smartphones, PCs, and smartphones.

Each of those IoT devices has integrated digital communications with Ethernet connectivity. This provides remote connectivity that goes beyond remote access for troubleshooting only. In most cases, the remote IoT devices are connected to an automation system to be the eyes of the production equipment for optimizing performance, transferring operational data and production information to the engineering team, and providing the management team with information analyses about the system. Here are some of the methods in which IoT technologies are being used to remotely monitor automation systems.

A) Remote Monitoring via HMIs

Most PC-based and embedded HMIs provide remote connections to automation systems via smartphones, personal computers (PCs), and tablets. For example, embedded HMIs that form a part of automation systems do include a web server functionality, which allows web pages to be configured to reside in them. These web pages can then be accessed remotely by any IoT device capable of running a web browser.

Today, wireless and Ethernet technologies-along with security-in-depth strategies such as firewalls and multi-factor authentication are making remote access to HMIs through tablets and smartphones part of an engineer’s, operator’s, or manager’s daily routine in a manufacturing setup. For instance, a systems engineer can monitor automotive machining transfer lines in several remote plants via a tablet or smartphone, allowing a proactive response to system malfunctions based on the information pushed from the HMI (i.e., a text message or an email).

Also, a “motor high temperature detected” or “low bearing lubricating oil” alert sent to the maintenance and operations team, provides real-time information that operators can promptly act upon to reduce system downtime and improve productivity. Thus, with remote access to HMIs via tablets or smartphones, operational data can be pushed to operators when necessary without the need to open a web browser and connect to the respective HMI.

B) Remote Monitoring and Control via PLCs

As with HMIs, local Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) can be accessed remotely via smartphones, tablets, and PCs. Remote access to PLCs provides control functions, direct access to the PLC’s tag data, and access to logged data. Often, PLCs also have various built-in data handling capabilities including data logging, which is a key component given the current quest for more data storage. Moreover, many PLCs include integral and removable storage media, which can hold many gigabytes of data that is accessible remotely.

It’s important to note that, the eventual remote monitoring of automation systems via PLCs is made possible by the controller’s communication capabilities. Some top-of-the-line PLCs include seven or more communication ports, including Ethernet, Serial, and USB ports. Most of the remote connections provided by PLCs to automation systems are usually created by EtherNet/IP and Modbus TCP/IP protocols.

Also, like HMIs, PLCs have remote access features such as push notifications and an embedded web server. In fact, web server and email functionality are standard features on most PLCs, allowing the controller to send an email containing embedded process data or message text to maintenance and operations personnel via the PLC’s Ethernet port.

In addition, with built-in PLC programming instructions and adding an IP address, email address, subject, embedded data or message text, and recipient’s email address is all it would take to send process information from the PLC CPU module to email recipients’ through an SMTP server. This gives operators a simple way of monitoring alarm alerts or the machine status of the connected automation system.

Note: Much of the HMI remote monitoring is of data measured, read, or collected by the PLCs. As it’s the PLC that connects to most of the sensors and field devices like motors, valves, etc., enabling the HMI to carry out its monitoring functions. Thus, remote access to a PLC will often provide connectivity to all the required operational data, with additional functionalities such as control and access to PLC data that are usually not transmitted to the HMI.

C) Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Security Layers

Leveraging IoT in remote monitoring of automation systems requires a secure remote access solution to collect, record, and share operational data. Thus, cybersecurity is becoming very necessary as threats to data security continue to rise, and as more automation systems are being monitored remotely.

For any remotely monitored automation system where a PLC or an HMI is connected to the Internet, a firewall should be used. The firewall feature in most Internet routers substantially reduces the risk of unauthorized network access. Also, the use of remote access accounts and passwords available in both PLCs and HMIs-provides asset protection as well as an additional layer of security, although including a firewall can provide a more secure remote connection.

Another advanced layer of network security is a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. The VPN encryption ensures that the data being transferred cannot be intercepted and that only authorized operators can access the HMIs, PLCs, or other IoT devices in the network. Actually, VPN is part of the defense-in-depth strategies that greatly reduce the chances of malicious behavior and unauthorized remote connections to automation systems.

Benefits of Implementing IoT-Based Remote Monitoring of Automation Systems  

1. Improved Operational Efficiency

IoT remote monitoring of automation systems enables operators, maintenance personnel, and production supervisors to access real-time data about an ongoing process. Also, when a fault occurs within the automation system, the connected IoT devices send text notifications or email alerts that specify the cause of the problem. Thus, operators and maintenance crew can address the highest priority issues in a timely manner, avoiding unnecessary production downtimes.

Also, through digitalized analysis of the readily available operational data, system engineers can devise ways to improve or optimize the performance of various automation systems for maximum production of high-quality end products.

2. Reduced Operating Costs

Remote monitoring systems leveraging IoT technologies significantly reduce the labor and time necessary to carry out routine production operations, like reordering raw materials or reprogramming production equipment in programmable automation systems. Instead, automatic reordering of raw materials and flexible automation help ensure that end products are available without last-minute expedited costs, excessive on-site inventory costs, or downtime costs. In a nutshell, IoT-based remote monitoring of automation systems in manufacturing plants helps to a streamline production processes, saving greatly on operating costs.

3. Data Reliability

IoT devices in remote monitoring systems replace the manual method of data collection, where operators walk around the plant floor recording data on clipboards from gauges, field sensors, or operator interface screens. The manual method tends to provide unreliable data as a human is to error, and it’s also tedious so the amount of data collected is limited. But automated data collection using IoT devices is much more efficient, more consistent, and more reliable. For example, sensors built into your automation system infrastructure can collect operational data right at the source. This allows continuous and simultaneous data collection in real time.

Also, data is not just collected and transferred more efficiently in IoT-based remote monitoring systems, but you also get larger volumes of useful information that allow you to make timely and more effective decisions. For example, the status of multiple machines in an automatic assembly line can be verified simultaneously and near-instantaneously by embedded wireless sensors before the system starts operating. If a component is damaged or dysfunctional, the remote monitoring system will notify relevant personnel, so that they can respond promptly.

4. Predicting Potential Problems

IoT remote monitoring devices are capable of predicting the type of problem that is likely to occur in a given automation system. They record and analyze operating conditions like temperature patterns, vibration levels, and current flows. From here, the remote monitoring system can fix any possible issue, before it causing any noticeable problem that can disrupt the production process. This also saves on maintenance costs, as routine maintenance will only be carried out when it’s essential; keeping in mind that maintenance doesn’t always find out the possibility for system issues.

5. Improved Quality of Finished Products

Raw materials, working conditions, environmental factors, and operator actions can all affect the quality of the end products of a manufacturing process. But recording and analyzing information about these factors through a remote monitoring system gives insights into productivity and quality improvements. The information can also allow you to isolate a quality problem specific to various products for targeted recalls.

6. Faster Troubleshooting

As stated earlier, an IoT-based remote monitoring system is able to send text and email notifications that can provide potential downtime alerts, allowing operators to address the issue as fast as possible. Also, root cause analysis provided by the same system can enable operators to diagnose the specific cause of equipment failure. In addition, with downtime analytics, the management team can evaluate the true cost of each type of system failure. Thus, an IoT-based remote monitoring solution is the most effective way of incorporating all of these techniques to increase the reliability of your automation system.

7. Increased Uptime

When a remote monitoring system leveraging IoT technologies identifies a problem within the connected automation system, it responds almost instantly. And since the systems are networked, the operators are not required to be on-site to assist with the problem resolution. As they can address the fault remotely, and in most cases, the remote monitoring system can provide a response on its own. This allows the automation system to be monitored to work round the clock; so, it can handle spikes in product demand faster and more reliably than human operators could.

This entry was posted on June 29th, 2022 and is filed under Automation, PLC, Technology. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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