The Rules Are Changing

E-mail Tom Kevan

That's right, the rules for manufacturing and automation are changing. And it's not just economics that are driving the transformation; it's technology, too.

Moving Beyond the Four Walls
While economics have driven a lot of manufacturing offshore through outsourcing, some fundamental functions and processes that were done within a manufacturing facility by local engineers are being shifted to outside technical staffs.

In the past, it was the factory's engineers, technicians, and operators who watched over production processes and equipment. These folks assumed the responsibility for maintaining and monitoring quality-control equipment. It was a hands-on job.

Now there are signs that some of these functions are being taken up by contracted staff that provide services from remote locations. How do they do it? New communications technology, distributed information infrastructures, and agile software tools can now bring a factory's operations into monitoring sites on the other side of the country in much the same way that TV brings world events into our living rooms. But there's one big difference: When there's a problem, the technicians at these remote sites can do something about it.

An Instrument of Change
Honeywell recently issued a press release announcing a new service that will help pulp and paper companies reduce maintenance costs and keep their quality-control equipment running smoothly. The automation giant's QCS Remote Monitoring product allows its technicians to monitor quality control equipment and diagnose problems from afar. Honeywell promises the new service will reduce maintenance expenses and cut downtime.

QCS Remote Monitoring is a scalable service that includes the support of trained service personnel and the implementation of system-monitoring tools. A Honeywell centralized server running monitoring software is responsible for polling the customer's operations. The system can continuously monitor process data, extract trend information, and identify problems, and recommend remedies. When predetermined standards are exceeded, the system notifies the appropriate people on site.

To implement this service, Honeywell maintains secure virtual private network connectivity between the customer network and Honeywell's SecureNet. The equipment used for the network can be a combination of Honeywell's and/or the customer's equipment. System users are authenticated through a login procedure, and the network is guarded by a firewall encryption infrastructure to protect customer and Honeywell information from hackers.

Round and Round She Goes
It sounds like a neat system and a valuable service, but it could also be the beginning of a change that will further shuffle the functions and responsibilities of running a manufacturing facility. I'm not suggesting that this is a bad thing. I'm only wondering who will still have a chair when the music stops.

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