Remote machine management promises numerous operational improvements, including more efficient energy use

While smart factories in which every step in the value chain is automatically tracked and recorded may still be a distant prospect, technology that allows remote management of at least of some plant equipment is becoming mainstream.

By Jürgen Hase April 21, 2014

Technical management of plant and equipment can be a highly complex and expensive business, especially if they are in use all over the world. That is why manufacturers and maintenance providers have for several years been on the lookout for ways to manage machinery remotely. One of the first ways was to use serial interfaces. For more than 25 years they have been incorporated in different devices—from elevators via medical instruments to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Technicians were able to access machines, albeit only on-site to begin with. To facilitate remote access, circuit-switched networks gradually came into use, but most companies chose not to make use of this option because of the low bit rates and high costs.

Machine-to-machine (M2M) solutions now provide a better alternative. They are much less expensive, run at higher bit rates, and enable maintenance personnel to access plant and equipment remotely via their tried and tested software. A mobile network-based terminal is connected to the serial interface. The device lengthens the serial interface by establishing a secure connection via an encrypted tunnel to a server in the corporate network or to a mobile terminal device. Authenticated users can thereby access the machine from anywhere.

Connected via a mobile network-based controller

For plant and equipment that is not Internet-enabled, there is another networking option—an off-the-shelf solution that any qualified electrician can set up. The first step is connecting a mobile network-based controller to enable data and instructions from and for the machine to be transmitted, received, and passed on. Once a technician connects the controller’s standard ports with the machine’s interfaces, management software embedded in the controller can be used to configure the operating parameters to be recorded.

Communication with terminal devices such as PCs, tablets, smartphones, or a server is via the mobile network. By means of authentication the management software ensures that only authorized users can start or stop processes or adjust settings. The software also provides various configuration options. If a specific threshold level is exceeded or not reached, the software alerts maintenance personnel automatically by e-mail or text message. This function enables field service to take place almost immediately.

Remote access for process optimization

The advantages of remote management solutions of this kind are self-evident. Maintenance personnel no longer need to be called out to diagnose problems or change machine settings. The system monitors specific parameters itself and alerts maintenance personnel if on-site intervention is required. Information supplied in the course of this process assists the field service technician, especially in the case of unscheduled disruptions that require swift responses and decisions. The more details are known, the faster and more precisely the maintenance personnel can respond. They then know, for example, which tools and spare parts they will need for the repair or which operating parameters will need to be recalibrated.

Continuous monitoring of specific parameters promises further potential, especially when it comes to energy efficiency. Industrial companies, for example, suffer because a large part of their compressed air does not arrive where it is needed. Monitoring flow speed and volume flowrate by sensors, the system is able to note even the smallest leaks and inform the technicians about the affected spot. With such systems in place, an enterprise can reap a 6% to 10% reduction in energy consumption.

Wear and tear of critical components can also affect energy efficiency. It is therefore even more important to have sensors continuously monitoring machine components. The system notifies the maintenance team as soon as pre-defined limits are exceeded or not reached. If a sufficiently large buffer is included when defining these limits, the part can be replaced outside of operating hours. Evaluating operating data thereby not only avoids wear-related energy losses but also makes proactive maintenance possible. Indeed, if the product and its surroundings are measured and evaluated continuously, its development process can be influenced fundamentally.

This new knowledge is reflected in the offerings of manufacturers and service providers. Proactive services could, for example, be incorporated in service level agreements. If, say, a connected street lamp on the company’s premises breaks down, the incident must not first be discovered and reported. Instead, the lighting system diagnoses the street lamp’s breakdown, notifies the workshop immediately, and documents how long it takes to repair.

Off-the-shelf solutions spur the market

Connected solutions do, however, require seamless interaction of several components and services. They do, after all, consist of complex embedded systems or externally connected communication units and depend on either a reliable fixed-line connection or a highly available mobile network. In most cases a cloud-based management software platform also is required and must be integrated into the company’s IT landscape. Until recently, users wishing to adopt these connected solutions had to sign separate contracts with multiple vendors-hardware and software suppliers, and a mobile network operator.

It’s much simpler now, as telecommunications companies and global IT service providers have begun bundling all of the components and competences required for these solutions. The aim is to offer small and midrange enterprises, in particular, a full-service solution from a single source.

Some of these solutions can be purchased at a fixed price per machine, eliminating the costly up-front investment that has discouraged many manufacturers from entering the world of connected production. Indeed, full-service packages of this kind will spur the market on. In the long term, they will lead to remote management of nearly every aspect of a manufacturing plant’s equipment. Service providers will derive special benefit from being able to offer their customers significantly improved service that also lowers their operating costs.

Jürgen Hase is the vice president of the M2M Competence Center at Deutsche Telekom AG. He joined Deutsche Telekom AG in 2011 as head of the M2M Competence Center and has been in the telecommunications industry for more than 20 years. He is also Chairman of the M2M Alliance. Edited for the CFE Media Industrial Energy Management section in April as a Digital Edition Exclusive. Send comments to 

Key concepts

  1. New technologies are emerging to enable true remote equipment management.
  2. Remote machine management offers numerous advantages, starting with near immediate problem diagnosis, which lets field technicians know exactly what action they need to take upon arriving at the site.
  3. With a remote machine management system in place, an enterprise can reduce energy consumption as much as 10%.

Consider this:

In addition to contributing to energy savings, remote machine management makes it easier to practice proactive maintenance. That allows for replacing parts at the first signs of wear. This means parts can be replaced without interrupting production, and without causing damage that ultimately shortens equipment life.