With background debate concerning growth in the manufacturing sector, and the wider topic of whether the UK adopts automation and robotics in line with global competitors, Omron’s Robert Brooks addresses some of the issues that might be making machine builders nervous about using robotics. This article was featured in the Control, Drives & Automation magazine
In our globalised economy, packaging machines made in France could be sold to a food manufacturer in the Netherlands for installation in Brazil. The customer will, of course, be looking for good back-up as part of the deal, and for the machine maker, providing active and long-term support offers a major sales advantage, leading to increased customer satisfaction.
The problem has always been that delivering back-up on an international basis is fraught with problems. It has involved either making major investments in staff, facilities and equipment, or taking the risk of subcontracting to a local service provider, who may not have the same standards.
Omron has been addressing this problem for some years now. Extensive investment in internal communications has integrated the company’s global network of offices and distributors. As a result, parts and site maintenance can be provided for Omron-equipped products virtually anywhere in the world. Perhaps more significantly, Omron has developed a remote connectivity solution that enables a machine maker to access a machine’s PLC over the internet, using a PC, laptop, smartphone or tablet.
This remote access, which is designed around easily-installed, pre-written software function blocks, gives secure access to the data on any machine controlled by a suitable PLC, from anywhere in the world. So an engineer from the machine maker or the customer can review the machine’s status, carry out preventative maintenance, diagnose problems and install software updates.
Remote diagnostics is still being developed, but already it is being used in a variety of ways, from the fairly simple and straightforward to significantly more complex. For example:
· Two-way text messaging with the machine sending error or warning messages to a mobile phone; the machine can be operated or stopped using text messages
· Automatic emails from the machine giving diagnostic information and status reports
· Remote web-access giving an engineer full control over the machine, using a standard browser to replicate the HMI
· Remote monitoring and programming to enable software to be updated and individual components – drives, HMIs, motion controllers etc. – to be to be accessed and reconfigured as required
If replacement parts are needed, these can be identified remotely and – as long as the technology supplier has the facilities in place – sourced locally. If necessary, instructions for fitting and testing can also be sent over the net, and the installation process monitored and verified – again, remotely. And even where complex issues arise that require the presence of a specialist technician, the ability to diagnose the problem and develop the solution remotely will ensure that the work is done quickly, efficiently and at minimum cost.
In these and other ways, remote connectivity opens up entirely new possibilities for machine makers, in terms of improved customer service, lower warranty costs and enhanced efficiency. Customers can be offered extended service contracts which can be operated cost-effectively without the need for expensive international travel costs or an on-the-spot service organisation.
For the end-user, the benefits are immense: peace of mind, minimised downtime, fewer production hold-ups and problems solved very quickly – all without waiting for an engineer to arrive on site. In the world of global markets and manufacturing, remote connectivity is, quite simply, still the future.