Lower TCO for more competitive machines
For OEMs operating in high-wage countries like Germany, constant innovation is the go-to weapon in the battle for global market share. Differentiation through technical features alone is not enough, however. Customers purchasing machines and equipment are looking for suppliers who are willing to assume a greater portion of the investment and production risk. Not infrequently, the decision hinges on a total cost of ownership calculation that takes into consideration the cost of maintenance, repairs and unplanned downtime.
In order to calculate these risks, it must be possible to identify, categorize and manage the respective costs. This means deploying service personnel more efficiently, preventing errors altogether or detecting them early and correcting them via remote maintenance.
Proactive, not reactive
"Service calls, replacement parts and remote maintenance are part of the daily routine when you're building or operating machinery," says Dr. Robert Rae, co-founder and CEO of PerFact GbR. "Yet, we're always surprised to see how many companies are content with handling these issues reactively rather than proactively." Since 1998, Rae's team of IT experts has been helping machine builders and owners implement remote maintenance solutions and optimize overall operating procedures. "The multitude of different systems and lack of transparency that these companies deal with are indeed quite daunting."
One of the most common obstacles is often presented by the communication media used. "Traditional remote maintenance systems connect to machines via modems," explains Rae. "The problem is that connection technology and transfer rates vary so greatly from country to country that these systems can't easily be implemented on a global scale."
A machete for the legacy system jungle
The tangled mass of isolated solutions that tends to accumulate over the years presents an overwhelming challenge for machine builders and owners looking to streamline their operations. "It's not uncommon for us to arrive at a company to find multiple VPN solutions and several different types of modems being used in parallel," reports PerFact's customer relations manager, Bernd Köhler. Both untapped potential and serious dangers lurk in this jungle of partial solutions. Operators desensitized by excessive error messages ignore important warnings, machine controllers generate helpful data that is never utilized and service requests are misdirected, processed multiple times or simply go unanswered. In many cases, potential solutions are further hindered by concerns regarding the security of remote communication and access.
This is where the perfact::mpa software architecture comes into play. It allows machine builders and owners to manage all of their processes on a single platform. It lets them monitor production equipment from anywhere in the world and initiate targeted remote access whenever it is needed. Machine data, error messages and maintenance tasks are all managed and documented in a central location.
The heart of the perfact::mpa solution is the Meeting Point server. Its database stores comprehensive data about each machine – from blueprints, parts catalogs and user's manuals to photographs documenting the machine's original condition. A ticket system allows maintenance tasks to be prioritized, processed and archived.
More secure than online banking
When an error occurs, an on-site technician can simply log in to the Meeting Point server from a standard browser, create a ticket that describes the problem and then hand the matter over to the manufacturer's service team. The responsible support personnel is informed immediately of the pending request via email or text message. If the issue requires access to the machine or control system, the on-site technician can allow remote access via the Meeting Point server. No communication occurs until confirmation is received from the on-site technician. Once established, the secure tunnel connection can be terminated by either party at any time. "Another advantage of our system is that the user can define rights to control what parts of the machine service personnel can access," says Rae. "This is a very effective way to keep sensitive information isolated."
SSH tunneling and HTTPS authentication using x509 certificates ensure maximum security while transferring data. These measures allow secure Internet connections without requiring the user to modify their firewall or open up ports for remote access. "At the end of the day, perfact::mpa is more secure than online banking," says PerFact's CEO.
Encrypted transmission of all types of data
The specific data that is transmitted over the encrypted network cable depends on the user's requirements as well as the data and functions offered by the respective machine controllers. "The range of diagnostic options varies greatly from provider to provider," says Rae. "Not everyone does this at B&R's level. Features like the System Diagnostics Manager integrated in every B&R controller – which provides automatic access to hardware and software status information and the ability to modify the control application via remote maintenance – are something you won't find in the portfolio of many suppliers."
The Meeting Point server is complemented in the field by the remote Meeting Point router, whose two Ethernet ports allow it to serve as a hub for communication between the Internet or intranet and the machine network, while integrated firewalls prevent unauthorized access. Wireless connections are also possible, letting users access the machine network directly from their phone or tablet without having to go through the Internet or intranet. The router's Linux software does not require a license, which means adding new machine networks is a straightforward matter of hardware costs alone.
"Even though we don't sell the hardware ourselves, our customers are always asking us which device we recommend using as a router," says Köhler. "Finding the right device turned out to be tougher than we thought. The first one we selected ultimately proved unsuitable for industrial environments. For one, it wasn't readily available to all of our customers around the world, and after a few months it ended up being discontinued altogether."
B&R delivers system availability
In 2011, PerFact took a new look at the market and found what it was looking for at B&R. Industrial PCs from B&R's Automation PC 500 series and HMI systems from the Power Panel 500 series possessed exactly the qualities needed by the company. "The first great advantage was clear from the start," recalls Rae. "These systems all use the same standard hardware platform, so we only have to develop and maintain a single Linux image, regardless of whether or not a display is needed." And since the devices are standard equipment and not specific to any particular customer or application, the user isn't caught in a technology trap.
With the software installed on a B&R CompactFlash card, replacing devices is quick and easy. It is also possible to update and modify the software centrally via the Meeting Point server. B&R's rugged devices without fans or conventional hard drives are impervious to adverse industrial environments.
"Users can rest assured that these devices will be available for many years to come, and with B&R's global support and distribution network they are easily accessible to customers anywhere in the world," says Köhler. "Another strength of the B&R solution is that it comes from a company with an exceptional level of Linux expertise and a rare depth of understanding for the needs of machine and systems manufacturers. B&R stands head and shoulders above other suppliers, which is why it gets our unconditional recommendation."