By eliminating the need for physical access to field devices, a VPN-based remote assistance service reduces a specialist machine builder's fault response times from days to minutes. For Maximator, a secure remote monitoring and maintenance package from B&R has helped reduce on-site visits, made commissioning more efficient and improved response times for troubleshooting its high-pressure hydraulic and pneumatic systems.
Maximator is among the world's leading manufacturers and suppliers of pumps and boosters, valves, fittings and tubing for high-pressure gas and fluids. Its UK subsidiary also assembles these components into specialized testing, pressure and control systems. With a long history relying on B&R for automation technology, Maximator also turned to B&R when it came time to select a remote maintenance solution. Secure Remote Maintenance now allows Maximator UK to remotely access its installed base of machines and view customer HMI systems in order to support and guide them through production tasks or to provide programming and troubleshooting of software.
Before Secure Remote Maintenance, Maximator UK's engineers would need to travel extensively to customer sites so they could witness first-hand how they were interacting with the machine, provide support during commissioning or fix faulty configurations. Furthermore, once the machine is operational, customers often want to add functionality to further automate their process, such as when they discover a production bottleneck or a repetitive task must be performed. This often entails writing software. Maximator UK's engineers can now remotely access the machine and update the software, saving both time and money.
"Now, if a customer has a production challenge, they simply call us and we can connect and help them solve the problem within minutes," says Maximator UK's managing director, Jon Butler. "That is a huge benefit to the customer as they do not have to schedule in a technician to go to the site. Alternatively, our engineers can proactively alert end users to any upcoming service or maintenance issues of which they may otherwise be unaware."
The Secure Remote Maintenance package comprises three components: SiteManager is a small, secure, Internet-enabled modem that connects the machine in the field, via the installed PLC, to the Internet and the GateManager server. The SiteManager only has to be installed once. If the device is replaced, all parameters are transferred from the machine controller to the new SiteManager. It is available in three variants for different Internet connections: LAN, WLAN or mobile network modem (LTE/4G/3G/GPRS).
GateManager is the service that then connects all the various SiteManagers to each other. GateManager checks access rights before establishing the connection between technician and machine via B&R's server. User accounts, authorization settings and machines are all managed using an intuitive web portal that can be customized to the specific requirements of the customer. GateManager can be leased from B&R as an SaaS (Software as a Service) solution or installed on an in-house server.
LinkManager is a software client used by the service technician to establish a connection to the machine. Users can remotely view live information from the PLC via dashboards or HMIs and make changes to coding without having to travel to the customer site. It runs on Windows XP/7/8/10 for maximum compatibility, while LinkManager Mobile allows technicians to access machines and systems using a smartphone or tablet for diagnostics and reporting.
"What impressed us is the ease with which the Secure Remote Maintenance system can be set up and activated on a machine," says Butler. "It really is out-of-the-box and plug-and-play." Some Maximator UK machines feature a system that sends emails every month requesting that customers take hourly or cycle count readings. For some customers this can be burdensome.
Using GateManager, Maximator UK is able to remotely take the cycle count readings and instantly spot if there are any problematic trends. "Customers are very receptive to that level of service," says Butler. "We see it as a great added value to our products, and we don't even need to charge extra for it, as it not only saves us money by avoiding site trips to resolve minor issues, but also enables us to provide a better product to our customers."
Maximator UK had been considering the potential for remote assistance for over two years. Eventually, its rapidly growing installed base and increasing awareness and acceptance among its customers of Industry 4.0 indicated that the timing was right. "It is proving harder and harder for us to make the number of site visits that would be needed to look after our installed base," says Butler. Now, Maximator can view the relevant data remotely and immediately implement the necessary updates, ammendments or fixes. "The key motivator has been our customers' realization of the power of Industry 4.0 and the ease with which we can safely and securely connect in a cost-efficient and effective way."
VPN networks, firewalls and certificate-based authentication ensure maximum security for the remote connection. Protection is even provided against man-in-the-middle and denial-of-service (DoS/DDoS) attacks. In order to avoid conflicts with plant firewalls, communication between the SiteManager and the Internet is handled using firewall-compatible encrypted web protocols.
"If customers do have security concerns, we offer 3G or 4G alternatives, meaning that we avoid interfacing with their network," says Butler. "And we give them a switch on their machine so they can turn off the device at any time so that we are unable to connect without their consent. The connection is only ever made in response to the customer's request for service or maintenance."