COVID-19 emergency support for safety circuits, VFDs, vision, PLC power quality, SCADA

System integrators can provide emergency support for automation troubleshooting to shorten or prevent downtime, improve quality and save money as manufacturing restarts or continues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Matt Ruth June 3, 2020


Learning Objectives

  • System integrators can help with automation troubleshooting, maintenance, and repairs.
  • Automation systems system integrators can help with include: safety circuits, VFDs, vision systems, PLCs, and SCADA.

Manufacturing plants and facilities have a critical shortage of support options, but system integrators can help with 24/7 emergency support to minimize downtime. In the last few years, it’s become a luxury to have a fully-staffed maintenance and engineering department that can fix control systems when they fail and do preventive maintenance needed to keep them running.

Automation troubleshooting examples of system integrator support where “they called us and we fixed it” include emergency support for safety circuits, variable frequency drives (VFDs), machine vision system systems, power quality for programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) server maintenance.

Five ways a system integrator can help during a pandemic follow.

Safety circuit troubleshooting

1. Troubleshooting machine safety circuits: A support contract holder couldn’t get a bagging machine to run because of a problem in the safety circuit. These circuits are notoriously tricky to work with because of the level of redundancy and signal verification. The technicians on-site were more comfortable with mechanical issues, and needed some help decoding the electrical schematics to find the wiring fault. After a quick phone chat, a system integrator engineer went to the site. The engineer used the drawings and guided the technicians in what to test and how to track down the problem to a failed contact on one of the relays. A quick trip to the parts room and all was back in order, and the technicians received a little on-the-job training from the system integrator to help with similar situations in the future.

VFD replacement

2. Troubleshooting and replacing a variable frequency drive (VFD): A call came in toward the end of the day about a palletizer that kept faulting out. Normally, a remote connection is established to do the first round of troubleshooting, but the plant’s information technology (IT) left for the day, and virtual private network (VPN) access wouldn’t be an option. After the system integrator arrived at the plant a couple hours later, obtained the PLC code, and got online, a VFD was found to have an intermittent overvoltage fault. The likely cause was determined as a problem with the drive’s internal brake. A little testing showed this to be the case, and the recommended was the plant’s technicians replace the VFD. At this point, the system integrator’s engineer had been working more than 12 hours and called for backup. An engineer with experience configuring the VFD brand arrived just as the new drive was ready to power-up. The system integrator entered all VFD parameters to get it running and restore palletizer operations.

Underwater with automation repairs? While a system integrator can help with a 2 a.m. emergency troubleshooting and repairs, it may be less costly, less risky and more productive to fill gaps in manufacturing or facility automation talent with system integrator expertise to keep automation running reliably. Courtesy: Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

Vision system adjustments

3. Finding and fixing vision-system communications: System integrator team work can fill in for system integrator experience. Remotely connecting to a packaging line determined that an excess reject rate was due to a vision system that intermittently stopped communicating with the supervisory PLC. After isolating the problem and not having a strong background with that particular system, the engineer involved suggested the end user call a system integrator partner. That connection helped get a service technician to the site. After changing some communication parameters, the system integrator verified the system was stable.

PLC power quality issues

4. Improving programmable logic controller power (PLC) quality: Maintenance managers, technicians, and operations managers are afraid of thunderstorms. Lightning wreaks havoc on electronics, and when a power spike and outage is coupled with a dead battery, trouble can result for automation connected to the PLC. After connecting via VPN and determining the PLC was not communicating, the system integrator engineer diagnosed the main problem as an Ethernet module that had been destroyed from overvoltage.

Replacing the module took only a few minutes, but the LEDs indicated the PLC programming needed to be reloaded due to a dead battery. Fortunately, this customer used software that secures, manages, helps with versioning, tracking and reporting automation-related assets, so obtaining and downloading the correct program was easy. Since the machine had died mid-cycle, the technicians had to clear out the machine and reset everything to home position. The system integrator engineer reduced the time needed for this by jogging the servos via the PLC program, and the system running again within a couple hours.

Plant-wide maintenance, including SCADA servers

5. Developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for maintenance: While middle-of-the-night break/fix stories are dramatic, regular preventive maintenance helps keep automation out of those situations. System integrators can provide monthly remote preventive maintenance for a customer to help bridge the gap in information technology and operational technology (IT/OT) capabilities. After researching manufacturer recommendations, system integrator experiences and best practices helped in collaborating with a customer to create an SOP for periodic maintenance on servers for the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. The system integrator connects monthly to perform the SOP and provide a summary report to keep the system operating efficiently.

Automation trouble-shooting support for safety circuits, VFDs, vision systems, PLCs, and SCADA automation systems are a cross-section of the support a system integrator can provide to manufacturers. Keeping a plant or facility with automated devices and systems requires effort. System integrator support services can play a key role in avoiding or minimizing downtime.

Matt Ruth is president of Avanceon, a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

KEYWORDS: Automation troubleshooting, system integrator


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Author Bio: Matt Ruth is president of Avanceon.