When is remote management the right move?
By Paul J. Galeski, P.E., CAP
Remote monitoring technology has grown in sophistication by leaps and bounds over the past few years due to the proliferation of high-speed Internet and smart mobile devices. Company engineers and executives can now look securely at a plant through its automation systems and see exactly what is happening in real time from anywhere in the world. Although remote monitoring has progressed, many plants and companies could benefit from the next step, to active and systematic remote management by a skilled automation solutions provider.
Remote management adds critical elements to improve upon simple remote monitoring, allowing appropriately authorized individuals to be a virtual extension of your control room, anywhere in the world. These people can monitor your automation systems, help diagnose problems, tune loops, optimize processes, and generally improve production. They could theoretically be your own employees located remotely, but the opportunities for hiring another company to assist with your plant is growing in practicality and popularity.
Some number of automation professionals with a deep understanding of your processes and how they work should be on your payroll, but individuals with similar and other skills can be outsourced. The number of people needed in your plant at any given time may be far fewer than you think if you can supplement their activities with remote management personnel. The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of your main automation platform may be able to assist. However, most plants are a mix of systems from a variety of suppliers, which can cause issues for the OEM when it comes to holistically solving operational problems.
An automation solutions provider without ties to a single OEM can oversee the functioning of these mixed platforms and ensure they work together seamlessly. Moreover, as companies strive to maintain the lowest possible headcount, being able to extend an internal staff with remote managers and operators can fill critical gaps when needed. Plant operators and engineers can then concentrate on their assigned tasks, while other aspects of automation system maintenance and plant operation are managed remotely.
What can you expect from remote process managers? Probably more than you realize. For example, they can perform the following tasks:
Identify and diagnose problems before they cause production interruptions
Help get production going again more quickly after a failure
Check system health routinely
Provide oversight of routine system backups so operational improvements are captured and preserved
Keep cybersecurity protection up to date by supervising software updates and patches
When first considering the advantages of remote management, some companies only consider the cost. Any expenses must be offset with savings from reducing the need for internal staff to perform critical tasks, however. Another factor is the cost of lost production, unsellable product, or safety lapses, much of which can be saved by active remote management.
Your internal people can probably solve most problems given enough time, but what is production in your plant worth? How many problems happen when you are the least prepared to deal with them? Perhaps your staff could have the plant running again in five or six hours, but how much would it be worth to have it running again in one hour, or better yet, to avoid the problem entirely? Your company may find the production gained by having highly qualified help available 24/7 vastly outweighs the cost.
Working with a lean staff puts many plants at risk. In many cases there simply are not enough qualified and experienced people, and new hires may not have the skills necessary to maintain desired production levels. Remote management can fill the gap by delivering boots on the ground quickly as the situation demands it.
Training costs for remote management staff are minimized, because it is the service provider’s responsibility to get its staff up to speed on a plant’s specific processes and operations. Remote management personnel have to become familiar with the unique aspects of a client company’s facilities, down to specific systems and pieces of equipment. Individuals from both sides develop a level of comfort as they get to know their opposite numbers.
If this kind of solution is what you are looking for, there are many ways to explore your options, and it is possible to start small and evaluate before making significant investments. If the benefits are as expected, the remote management solution can be expanded to encompass more processes, plant areas, and automation systems.