Remote Monitoring Challenges & Opportunities

  • January 05, 2015
  • Feature

Bill Lydon’s Automation Perspective

By Bill Lydon, Editor

New technology is enabling remote monitoring capabilities to improve operational effectiveness. This presents users with opportunities and challenges to be evaluated for practical applications. The goal is to improve manufacturing or process uptime and efficiency. Subject matter experts are becoming increasingly hard to find and companies need to find ways to use them more efficiently. The latest remote monitoring tools allow experts to analyze problems and abnormal situations, and determine ways to improve and optimize operations, without traveling to the site.

Point or System Solution

Certainly radio, satellite, and cellular connections are good choices for remote equipment in applications like water/waste water, oil & gas, and pumping stations. In a factory or process plant it may be appealing to add a communication device to a machine to remotely troubleshoot and diagnose issues. This piecemeal approach may be warranted in special cases, but it may be more advantageous to take a systems level approach. A well-managed cyber-secure connection to the automation system network allows secure access to the entire system and simplifies administration. Older controllers without Ethernet connections can be interfaced to the plant system network using Ethernet gateways, which are available from a number of suppliers.

Cyber Risk

Remote radio, satellite, and cellular connections to automation systems create a new cyber security risk to operations. By adding an outside communications portal to a machine controller located on a plant network, the user broadens the cyber-attack surface. The user creates the cyber-security risk of malware infiltrating the network, data loss and malicious access to applications. Some type of firewall should be designed into the system to provide a secure gateway or access control point for all network traffic. For more critical processes and equipment, a device that provides deep packet inspection should be considered. Such a device can block traffic when network packets contain a known virus or exploit signature.

In-house or Contract Experts?

A number of suppliers are offering remote monitoring services. Experts and analytic software continuously monitor controllers and/or systems for abnormal situations and advise site personnel of current problems or predictions of future problems.

Control suppliers that offer these services certainly should have experts and software that can quickly detect issues with the controllers, components, and software that they provide. Since most plants have equipment from multiple suppliers, the value of this service may be limited if the provider does not monitor all equipment and applications. In some general equipment and process control applications, contract experts can detect and advise on issues in your plant production. A big advantage of the services approach is a third party has a remote, 24/7 operations center to constantly monitor your systems.

Some providers propose the collection of performance analytics information to learn how machinery is working and provide alerts when performance falls outside of predefined parameters. This requires the development of rules with input from plant staff because they understand the plant operations. Alternatively, companies can run a local rules engine with the rules developed by plant staff. This option may be more responsive and cost effective.


One new option for remote monitoring is the use of livestreaming video. This allows allowing local staff to collaborate with offsite subject matter experts who can virtually explore problems and provide advice. This video streaming can be accomplished with smart phones, tablet computers, Google Glass, or rugged camera headsets. The software applications can be as simple as FaceTime, Skype, WebEx, or GoToMeeting.

Motorola has purpose-built the HC1 headset computer for remote collaboration. The hands-free mobile computers provide access to documents and schematics while allowing remote subject matter experts to assist local personnel.


These new technologies enable subject matter experts to work more efficiently. There are fundamental issues to be considered.

First, we are experiencing a shortage of automation people. As the service provider’s businesses grow, finding more knowledgeable people will be a problem that could impact the service you receive. Quality of service requirements and measurements should be built into service supplier agreements.

Second, in-house knowledge is fundamental to running your plant or process. It is part of the company’s competitive advantage. Outsourcing associated services can hurt your company’s bottom line.

Third, there is a potential for loss of intellectual property that is important to your business.

Ultimately, when most problems and issues are identified someone needs to be onsite with the right tools, information and spare parts to get things working. Determining the best methods to achieve improved uptime and efficiency is the overall challenge.

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