Implementing remote technical training

By using an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) gateway, or a remotely-controlled PC, critical how-to skill-based training can be made available to engineering students anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

By Matt Pelletier, Yaskawa America Inc. May 31, 2018

Today it is possible to provide your customer with remote technical training, including hands-on time with your product. Industrial devices such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and servos rely on an Ethernet or universal serial bus (USB) connection for troubleshooting, configuration, and programming. This traditionally means that you have to be close to the device to learn how to use it. But by using an Internet of Things (IoT) gateway, or a remotely-controlled PC, critical how-to skill-based training can be made available to students anywhere there’s an Internet connection (see Figure 1). This also means that students can follow along with tutorial videos to learn at their own pace, on their own PC, just like they would with software-only eLearning.

How it works

Consider a customer who requires hands-on training to become comfortable with the programming and configuration of a PLC. Traditionally, either the customer must travel to your office, or you and the devices must travel to the customer. Naturally there is a cost in both time and money to make this happen. Enter the Industrial IoT Gateway. This connects the customer PC to the devices. Think of it as a really long cable going from the customer’s PC all the way to the devices in your office. Add an IP Webcam and the customer can see how the device responds.

Industrial IoT (IIoT) gateways and virtual private networks (VPNs) have been used for years to allow remote diagnostics and troubleshooting of computer systems and industrial automation systems. In the past, these systems could be complicated to manage, only worked within specific networks, or posed a security risk. In short, they often did not work. But today it is possible to get stand-alone units that operate independently over a 4G wireless connection to the Internet, making operation simple and keeping the IT department happy. This same technology can be leveraged to make remote hands-on training possible for any Ethernet or USB device. 

Whose PC is best?

Why go through the IIoT gateway? Why not simply let the student remotely control a dedicated training PC? (See Figure 2.)

There are pros and cons to each method. One consideration is software installation. Ultimately, if the students are your customers (or potential customers), they will have to install your software on their computers. Any installation problems can be solved on a case-by-case basis, without wasting classroom time as you would in a live class. When students install and use the software on their own PC, this creates a sense of confidence, familiarity, ownership, and buy-in to the product as a whole. The projects created in training are right there on their PC. It is a small step from the remote training equipment to your own device when the computer software is working. When everything is working on the student PC, uncertainty about the setup of the training PC is eliminated. Another benefit to remote connection is that students can log back in to test their own programs, once again, using their own computers. This remote system can take some of the load off the sales demos units.

Software installation often is not a problem, but sometimes it can be due to software licensing and PC configuration lockdown by the IT department. If this is the case, or if your software is prone to a cumbersome or lengthy installation process, then it may be best to provide a PC all ready to go. Students can log into a PC, control it remotely, and proceed with the training. In this setup, you may still find benefit to using an IIoT gateway or use the simpler solution of remote PC software. Keep in mind, however, that you lose the aforementioned benefits. Skills developed by the students while using the training PC will soon diminish unless they can install the software and make the connections on their own devices. Also, the remote PC may have a lag in response time. Video quality from the webcam also may suffer. This is still a good option, however. Consider providing a PC as a backup even if the student’s own PC is the first choice. 

Live and self-guided training

There are two basic methods to deliver training with remote hands-on access to your devices: live training, and prerecorded self-guided training.

For live training, the most travel-efficient option is to start up a screen-sharing session with the trainees-a webinar of sorts. The instructor can present training material, give instructions, and demonstrate a certain aspect of the device’s online configuration. The students can follow along (on another monitor), complete practice exercises, and share their screen to receive help and immediate feedback. Teaching a group of students remotely does require a bit of finesse in order for the instructor to efficiently manage every interaction through the computer screen. But it is easy to justify the inconvenience of the interface with the convenience, savings, and flexibility afforded by avoiding travel.

Another option for live training is to leave the equipment connected to the IIoT gateway back in the office, and the instructor alone travels to the students. Then conduct the training as you normally would if the equipment had been shipped to the training site. There are a few differences, however. First, you don’t have to ship equipment, which means no damage and no delays. Also, your only view of the device is through a webcam, which is useful, but not usually nearly as satisfying to the trainees as having the device right in front of them. This option is best suited for situations where the device is large or otherwise immovable, and for international training where shipping your product to the training site in another country is likely to result in customs delays out and back.

Prerecorded self-guided training requires the most work up front, but it can reach a large number of trainees. With this method, the instructor presents the training material, instructions, and demonstrations in a produced video. The student follows along and can go online with their remote connected equipment to try it for themselves. While this method does not have the advantage of instructor interaction, there are other advantages. First, if a topic was unclear, or the student was distracted, all they have to do is rewind the video. They can adjust the video playback speed to use their time more effectively. In other words, the student can learn at a comfortable pace and at any time. A new-hire can immediately take the courses in the optimum sequence without delay. No more waiting for an opening in the next training session, hoping it fits your schedule. Plus, later when the details become a little foggy, the video is still there for reference.

It is helpful to run the class live a few times and make adjustments. Then you know the types of questions people have, and the typical places they get stuck. As an instructor, you can then anticipate these questions and pitfalls, addressing them directly in the video recording. 

Testing, certification, and evaluation

How can you tell if the student actually acquired the skills necessary to use your device? If it were a live class, the instructor can observe the student and ensure a level of participation. But for self-guided training, you can’t even tell if the student was truly watching the videos. Did they really do the exercises?

Naturally, there is the multiple-choice test to get some clue. But remember, the student has access to your product during the test, and you’re not limited by an absolute "class over" deadline. This makes way for more creative problem-solving types of test questions that would not even be practical in a live class setting. For example, in a programmable device such as a PLC, it is often possible to "hide code" in the program that only gives the test answer if the trainee truly completes the required task. This could be fixing a program error, finding or setting certain data, or generating and clearing a specific alarm code. The "hidden code" could detect the existence and disappearance of the alarm. While this type of test can be difficult to create, in many ways it is superior to direct instructor observation, as it raises the bar for all trainees to the same level. Some may need more time to get to that level, some may not. But it’s an absolute level and all certified trainees will have achieved that level. Additionally, this type of test provides motivation to the student (engineers) and provides a satisfying sense of accomplishment when the answers appears. When these students show up for more advanced training, those who passed such a test will be at about the same level.

Looking ahead

So, is it possible to provide your customer with remote technical training, including hands-on time with your product? The answer is "yes," you can provide training to connected industrial devices remotely. It can be done in the same ways that software-only training has been done over the Internet for years. You just need an IIoT gateway, or a remotely-controlled training PC. Set up a sales demo of your product with a webcam pointed at it and hold a short basic web training session with an example application to solve (see Figure 3). Let the students use the equipment remotely. When you’re comfortable delivering this training, produce a video of it and let people do the training at their own schedule. Build from there and you’ll eventually have a library of video training tutorials and complete hands-on training courses that give your customers how-to training with the substance and skills required to connect to and configure your product successfully.

This video provides more information about remote technical training.

Matt Pelletier is a product training engineer at Yaskawa America Inc., where he has worked since 1999. He has worked extensively with product engineering to develop interactive hands-on training for servo tuning, IEC 61131, PLCopen, and advanced programming workshops for rotary knife, PackML, robots, and conveyor tracking. He also has created a library of training videos with hands-on access to remote servo and controller equipment, which are available free of charge on Yaskawa’s website. Otherwise known as "Matt Servo," he is a specialist in the application of Yaskawa servos and motion controllers in a variety of industries, authoring several articles in various publications. Pelletier has an electrical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

This article appears in the Applied Automation supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering.

– See other articles from the supplement below.