September 2007

Automation and eBay: A dangerous mix 

By Frank Hurtte

"Rockwell Automation Software Pirated and Sold on-line" and "Four Arrested for Pirating Millions of Dollars in Rockwell Software" rang in newspaper headlines recently. 

This software was not working to create cute new web sites for the entertainment of people at home. It controls automated machines. 

This translates to software used to control machines that could easily maim or kill. Some unsuspecting worker betting his life on software procured from a complete stranger over the internet does not seem too smart to me. 

Let's explore another piece of the pie.
I can think of at least a half dozen wholesale distributors of automation equipment who tell me they have experienced employee theft based on sales over the internet. Now we have a person whose life depends on stolen property. 

Further, there are other legal ramifications regarding a company receiving stolen property, whether knowingly or not. Just imagine the president of your company sitting in front of a jury saying, "Well your honor, we did buy it from a complete stranger on eBay, but they had a 99% positive feedback report."

Finally, suppose everything is on the up and up. You are buying used equipment on-line. The legal ownership issue is safely behind you. However, there are other hazards.  Automation equipment consists of complex technologies in an industrial container. The electronics contained within each of these devices contain both hardware and software (in the form of firmware). 

When purchasing used equipment, there is no real way to determine if external environmental issues or through some inappropriate repair whether the product is damaged. Environmental damage can be from electrical surges, lightning strikes, high temperature operation, or exposure to moisture. 

What should you do if you have purchased and are using second hand industrial software or hardware?

If it operates in known high-risk environment, immediately remove it from service. These would include:

  • Hands-in-die punch press
  • Metal forming and feeding applications
  • High speed material handling equipment
  • Curing or convection ovens
  • Machines with constant human intervention

Lead to safety issues

Send the equipment in question through the "refurbish or repair" loop of the original equipment manufacture. Ask for specific feedback on these issues:

  • Point-of-sale origin-many of these components are serial numbered and tracked by the original manufacturer.
  • Firmware revision number and any known firmware issues-certain levels of firmware possess known abnormalities or incompatibilities. These lead to safety issues.

Establish a company policy, which requires a statement of origin from any systems integration organizations, special machine builders, OEM equipment suppliers, or others working in your facility.

Ask all past suppliers to sign a document stating 100% of the equipment provided was purchased new through authorized dealers. If they do not or will not comply, I would investigate the equipment they have provided.

If I find myself stuck with some "undocumented" automation product, is there a use for it?

I understand it is hard to consider throwing what could be thousands of dollars of equipment into the dumpster. 

To some, eBay represents an outlet for recouping dollars. Is there an alternative? Here are some potential uses for the equipment:

  • Donate it to a college or technical institute for use in training future engineers and technicians.
  • Use it internally for system prove-out.
  • Use decommissioned racks as storage for spare modules.

Frank Hurtte ( of River Heights Consulting is a speaker, author, consultant, and coach to distributors and manufacturers of automation equipment.