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Remote Diagnostics Signal Growing Popularity

February 28, 2003

4 Min Read
Remote Diagnostics Signal Growing Popularity

Many machine manufacturers introduced some form of remote-diagnostics capability in the mid-1990s, but the feature took off only in the last two years due to the increased use of personal computers in industrial-equipment controls. Many oems note that the majority, if not all, of their current machines feature remote-diagnostics capability. There are now other trends that are pushing the use of so-called teleservice.

First, as more processors establish offshore manufacturing, located far away from their machinery suppliers, remote diagnostics is likely to grow rapidly, say experts at suppliers.

A second trend is processors’ reluctance to invest in machinery because of the stagnant economy. As machinery fleets at molders get older, remote diagnosis can reduce the cost of onsite service calls for machines that are no longer under warranty. And most machine problems can be dealt with remotely. Joe Altimari, business director of industrial blow molding at Graham Machinery Group (GMG), York, pa, notes that most problems are things that have been overlooked and can be remedied from afar.

Perhaps the most significant driver behind remote diagnostics is the increased use of pc-based controls for industrial machinery, says Rolf Jostes, manager of control techniques at extrusion blow molding machine maker SIG Blowtec, Troisdorf, Germany. Blowtec, which makes machines for packaging applications, switched to pc-based controls at the end of 2000 in order to offer a wider array of remote services, including software updates sent via telephone line.

The costs to make a machine remote-diagnostics-capable are minimal, says Roberta Gualtieri, communications manager at stretch blow molding machine maker Sipa, Vittorio Veneto, Italy. Processors need only analog phone lines, preferably dedicated for each machine. For machine manufacturers, costs include system-management costs and software. Some suppliers, including SIG Kautex, Bonn, Germany, and Uniloy Milacron, Batavia, oh, also offer processors the option of mounting video cameras near the machine.

Processor initiates and controls access to machine

Gualtieri notes that some processors refuse to connect their machines while others connect them only when problems arise. Some are concerned about data confidentiality while others simply lack a dedicated phone line. But, she notes that processors which have extended relationships with Sipa or buy multiple machines typically are strong proponents of the service.

Confidentiality should not deter processors, suppliers argue. Brian Dowler, engineering director at GMG, notes that since remote diagnostics must be initiated by the machine operator, the tool is employed as much as he requires. To initiate remote service, a machine operator pushes a button on the machine interface to activate the remote-diagnostics tools, and then calls GMG to request a remote connection. An engineer at GMG uses a modem and unique password to connect to the customer’s machine. A message on the machine informs the machine operator that a connection is being attempted, and he can accept or reject it.

Once connected, the GMG engineer can troubleshoot problems while communicating with the operator via a separate telephone line or text messages, which are entered and viewed in a window on the machine’s control panel. The operator can make the necessary adjustments, but often the remote engineer can perform them.

Service personnel at GMG have access to the information that the operator has. This includes process settings, machine parameters, and status of i/o points. In addition, it is possible, with the operator’s permission, to modify the process settings or machine parameters, and to download and activate software.

The popularity of cellular phones and, to a lesser extent, personal digital assistants (pdas), is driving manufacturers to work on the next generation of remote-diagnostics technologies. Karl Weber of the electronics department at SIG Corpoplast, Hamburg, Germany, notes that some of the fastest-growing processing markets, including China and the former Soviet states, are places where there may be insufficient phone service. In response, Corpoplast will begin mounting wireless modems, which work over cell phone networks, on some of its machines.

Sidel, Octeville sur Mer, France, is adding a module to its Efficiency Improvement Tool (eit) that will enable processors with pdas to access, via the Internet, machine information when minor repairs or changes are needed when they are offsite, says Patrick Schmitt, European director for the eit. The module permits users to call up a machine’s complete history, including reasons for past stoppages. Managers can use the system to compare outputs of different machines and even different facilities.

Sipa expanded its program, Sipa On Line, to include not only teleservice but also telemanagement. Going beyond troubleshooting, the program now can determine long-term machine performance. Sipa On Line collects data daily from a processor’s machines and stores it in a database. Sipa then computes several indexes for each machine (for example, efficiency, productivity, uptime, fault indexes, and recent or frequent alarms). Data collection can be done by linking the machine to Sipa using a dedicated analog phone line. Or, the processor can e-mail the data.

Despite the benefits, not all machine manufacturers are sold on remote diagnostics. Maggie Chau, business manager at Wei Li Plastics Machinery (Hong Kong) Co., says that keeping machine operation simple is more important than offering remote-diagnostics capability. She argues that strong local service outweighs the value of remote diagnostics.

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