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It’s your workplace...But who’s in control?

Remote machine control and diagnostic systems

November 2014

Whether it's the two-way telescreens that spied on the populace in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four or the murderously defective HAL computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, all-knowing data systems have gained a reputation in literature that's sketchy at best.

"But other times we must read between the lines"

For workers on today's factory floor, things look brighter. Many of the Fluke tool users we surveyed in early 2014 see remote machine control and diagnostic systems as a workplace reality... and for the most part, helpful.

The first industrial control systems entered industry in the 1960s and 1970s. We've come a long way, baby. Today ABB, Rockwell Automation, Honeywell, Siemens, Emerson, Yokogawa, and many others build and service control systems and networks.

Mixed cabinet

Mixed cabinet

Add the Internet and new data processing ideas, like "cloud" computing, and our world is changing once again. Advocates look forward to an Internet of Things (IoT), where smart phones and tablets, cars, home systems, and machine sensors on the factory floor share information machine-to-machine (M2M) over Internet protocol (IP) networks to be stored and processed in a distant "cloud," where data will be interpreted and appropriate responses ordered.

We wanted to know how Fluke users are absorbing these changes. How many see remote control and diagnostic systems on the job? Are they trained on such systems? Do remote systems help technicians get the job done - or are they taking over?

Input from the experts

These questions struck a chord with our 84 survey respondents. Some 69 work in the USA, seven in Canada, three in Singapore and one each in Chile, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

Most work in industry: Some 29 (35 percent) serve as maintenance technician, seven as maintenance managers, and seven others as in-house electricians. We heard from nine electrical contractors, six HVAC/R techs, four workers in R&D, and three process technicians, as well as a commercial building inspector, a thermography consultant, a facility manager, and a general contractor.

Another 15 respondents categorized their work as "other." They included a power quality consultant, a computer hardware tech, a biomedical equipment engineer, a forklift mechanic, a measurement systems supervisor, and several control systems design engineers.

Some 41 survey participants (49 percent) hold jobs in an industrial facility. Nine work as contractors, nine for utilities, four in government operations, three in commercial facilities, and one each in a hospital and a data center. "Other" was the job of 13.

Questions... and your answers

Here are the questions we asked about control networks and remote machine monitoring - we have summarized results and selected comments from survey respondents. We also asked about the impacts of industrial robots, and reported those results in a separate story.

  1. Does your facility use a control network to manage production systems?

    Respondents were evenly split, with 42 reporting their facility uses control networks and an equal number - some of whom don't work in industry - saying no.

  2. Does your facility remotely monitor machine condition and performance to detect, track, and report problems?

    Remote machine monitoring is on the job for 56 percent (47) respondents.

  3. How has remote monitoring affected the test and maintenance work you do?

    Those who use remote monitoring say it provides useful insights.

    "Remote monitoring has given me insight into process parameters and problems," said Roy, a Canadian maintenance manager. "On-demand feedback has helped to plan preventative maintenance as well as predict failure modes."

    Reggie, maintenance technician in Canada, also found remote monitoring helpful. "Remote monitoring and remote alarms determine the severity of a fault," he said, "and can determine if a truck roll is necessary or if a 'software' fix will do."

    "Our system has an Emerson DCS control system," said Vernon, maintenance technician in the US. "There are at least three other systems that can look at functions in the plant from other cities and states."

    "Takes a lot less time," said Sam, a US control systems design engineer. "Provides good predictive maintenance notifications."

    "Sometimes it is very helpful," said Stephen, maintenance technician in the USA. "But other times we must read between the lines. A transient voltage spike that is only present for a nanosecond doesn't always trip the correct bit in the CPU to give an accurate trouble or fault code."

  4. Are you trained and qualified to diagnose and maintain robotic machines, control networks, and/or "machine to machine" (M2M) communications?

    Surprisingly, nearly two thirds of survey participants (62 percent) said they are not trained on these systems. Some workplaces don't use such systems. Other techs are learning on the job, or trained on control networks but not on robots.

    "If you are calling a device like an automatic valve or damper a robot then yes, I do all these things," said Allen, maintenance technician in an American facility. "But here we do not have what someone would identify as a robot."

    Mixed cabinet

    "No, but I have similar skills gained through work with telemetry systems and motor control systems," said Jack, who works in commercial systems R&D.

    "Yes," said Calvin, in-house electrician at a US shipyard. "I have an AAS degree in electro-mechanical technologies with secondary classes in automation control programming. I also had basic robotic training and programming Fanuc robots."

  5. How do you think the increased use of production robots, control networks, and M2M communications will affect your job, and how soon?

    Many commented on the upside of such technology... but not all saw it that way.

    Joseph, an electrical contractor, saw only opportunity: "The more control networking, the more work will be heading our way," he said.

    "Wire guidance systems in state of the art warehouse systems have been evolving for at least 25 years," said maintenance technician Stephen. "And they just keep getting better. All I need is a service manual and a patient customer and I can usually figure it out."

    "I think it will make it easier to access information and plan for preventative maintenance, as well as control premature breakdowns," said Roy, a Canadian maintenance manager. "A mean time to a failure can be predicted way before the failure, if you have access to the data."

    "The use of networks and the tools to manage them are getting more complex," said Bob, a US contractor specializing in telecom. "It has already affected my ability to find work."

    "Enhance (my job) from an operational standpoint, and complicate maintenance," said Mike, who oversees repair and maintenance of medical equipment.

    "It will restrict my 'tool box' entries, but I'll have a job," said industrial maintenance technician Alan. "When the fit hits the shan, they'll still need bodies for the grunt work."

    "I will have to know more and do more," said maintenance technician Ron. And electrical contractor Lorenzo predicted such systems "will be the replacement to human labor."

  6. What is the best way test and measurement professionals can prepare for these changes?

    There's no hiding from the future. Training is the way to get there, said our experts.

  7. "The best way test and measurement professionals can prepare is be proactive," said Roy, a Canadian maintenance manager. "Knowing your machine and automation parameters you need, to ask what it is that affects those parameters and learn to control those measurables."

    "Get training on the latest tools and industrial networks," recommended Bob, a US electrical contractor.

    Sam, a technical operations planner and scheduler in Uzbekistan, had an analytical approach. "Assess the equipment and talent level you have against the future capital projects for automation," he said. "This can give you a rough draft of what you have in contrast with how you will need to grow."

    "Training, demos, exposure to advances in technology," said US maintenance technician Brian.

    "We have a great in-house training program that gets all the training you need to know about our current machines, with an electrical license at the end of the five year program," said maintenance technician Robert. "I think we need to change the training program to meet the future need of upcoming equipment and possibly having vendors come in to begin training before the equipment arrives."

    Jeff, an in-house electrician, had a warning. "Do not let the changes get too far ahead of you," he advised. "If you do you will be behind and have a hard time trying to catch up with the changes."

  8. Are handheld test tools still needed in a facility equipped with remote machine monitoring and robots on the production line? How are they used?

    Helpful as remote controls and monitoring can be, respondents said confirmation and calibration by techs on the ground, using handheld test tools, is a must.

  9. "You still need to do troubleshooting and to calibrate the remote monitoring," said Jeff, an in-house electrician.

    Another Jeff, an industrial maintenance technician, agreed. "You still have to check out things," he said. "Voltage checks, current checks, resistance checks, signal current communications checks."

    "Yes, you still need to work on different parts of the machine that aren't monitored," said maintenance manager David.

    "Yes, and much of the test equipment connects wirelessly," said Mike, the medical equipment technician. "We use remote monitoring on several machines and systems throughout the hospital."

    "Not all systems have monitors in place to check every aspect of the working machine," said Dave, a US process technician. "You will need skilled and trained technicians to diagnose and resolve issues that the remote monitoring annunciates."

    "We use a multimeter for general troubleshooting. We also incorporate motor signature analysis, vibration, ultrasonic, and thermography," said Chuck, maintenance manager in the utility field.

    "It is too expensive to monitor every single point," said Derek, an electrical controls engineer who supports a US manufacturing facility. "DVM and network test tools are still required to check things at the base level."

    "Handheld test tools are still needed," said maintenance technician Tom. "Usually the interface between the machine and the computer is still discrete components and can be checked with multimeters and oscilloscopes."

Additional information

Go to related article "Will You Have a Job in Tomorrow's Robot Factory?" »