How Remote Access is Advancing in the Process Industries
Due to the robust nature of process industries, there is a vast amount of data to read. Remote access can help parse data and has many additional benefits in these industries.
As the level of automation increases in manufacturing, so does the need and the benefit for remote access of control systems and data. In process manufacturing industries, remote access allows operators and engineers to control equipment, analyze data, and troubleshoot the system from laptops, smartphones, or tablets from their office, home, or coffee shop.
What is Remote Access?
Remote access is where data and control systems are executed electronically and accessed over the internet (or, better yet, the company’s private intranet). This way, engineers and technicians do not have to spend as much time wandering around an industrial facility to collect process data or control systems. Instead, data is stored digitally in near-real-time, and computers can perform process control decisions.
Process engineering is particularly improved with remote access, as there are often continuous, steady-state processes that must be routinely monitored. However, discrete manufacturing facilities also stand to benefit from remote access. But for the basis of this article, we will focus on process manufacturing.
Figure 1. A sight gauge and a camera can be used as a backup to check the digital readout of fluid level in a tank. Image used courtesy of Grainger
For process manufacturing, flow rates, temperatures, pressures, and other physical parameters can be sampled and easily compared to statistical process control (SPC) charts to look for problems. In discrete manufacturing, this is also true, though the inputs may include parts counts via light beam breakage, weight, or machine vision.
Remote access often includes access to camera data. This is particularly useful to double-check a digital measurement against an analog measurement. Suppose a flow meter shows no flow. A technician can check a strategically-placed camera to view a simple float indicating if the flow is truly stopped and take the appropriate action.
With a properly-integrated system, technicians and engineers are only granted access to systems with proper training and credentials. Data are limited to those who need to view it, and controls are left in the hands of those who have been trained.
Benefits of Remote Access
Remote access saves employees time and effort, but it can also improve safety in the workplace.
At a large refinery, there may be thousands of temperature, pressure, and flow gauges that need to be tracked for quality and safety purposes. Each unit operation, such as heat exchangers and crackers, will have additional alarms for process excursions, warnings, and maintenance indicators.
Figure 2. A worker wearing PPE and checking gauges in an industrial facility.
Before remote access, technicians would don their personal protective equipment (PPE), grab their clipboard, and then wander through the maze of catwalks and ladders, writing down the readings of the various gauges. These data points had to be collected, regardless of the weather, meaning workers may have had to climb icy ladders or in extreme heat. Every day in this environment, there was a trip, slip, or fall risk, and, weather depending, exposure or heat stroke risks.
Figure 3. This Sinclair refinery in Wyoming has thousands of sensors, monitoring processes and equipment, and generating data for future analysis. Image used courtesy of Sinclair Refinery
With remote access, the data is collected automatically and stored in databases on the cloud. Engineers write routines to analyze the data and check for anomalies. Should an anomaly occur, they can send technicians to a specific place and collect manual measurements or perform a maintenance or repair task. By doing so, technicians are not constantly walking throughout a large facility, increasing their chances of injury.
With remote access, plant engineers minimize the number of trips they need to make into the facility. This is a major advantage in contamination-sensitive processes, such as pharmaceuticals and semiconductors, where all persons entering the facility must undergo a complicated gowning and de-gowning procedure.
In pharmaceutical manufacturing, persons entering any part of the facility where pharmaceutical compounds are exposed must be gowned and tested. Not only does the gowning procedure limit chemical contaminants, but everyone must be tested to ensure that no biological contaminants are reaching the product. The biological threat in the semiconductor manufacturing facility is limited, but the particulate contamination potential is much higher.
Figure 4. An empty semiconductor manufacturing cleanroom.
Through remote access, engineers and technicians can monitor, investigate, and troubleshoot many processes without entering the cleanroom. Data is collected from cloud storage and analyzed on a laptop or sent to a processor cluster for analysis. Often, tests can be ordered remotely, meaning technicians must only enter the space to perform maintenance tasks.
One of the most important challenges is balancing the advantages of remote access with the digital security of devices. Accessing key machine controls and data remotely is convenient for the engineer and the hacker or an industrial spy.
Before remote access, an industrial spy looking to steal designs or sabotage critical systems would have to sneak into the physical facility, learn their way around, and either grab the critical data or launch their attack. Often, this meant the spy would have to be hired by the facility or one of its contractors, which is a challenge in itself.
Now, hackers can gain access to critical systems much more easily. Physically, they can steal someone’s laptop, tablet, or smartphone. They can simply look over an engineer’s shoulder at a crowded coffee shop and gain some access. Electronically, there are many scripts and techniques for stealing data once it is available on the cloud.
Employees must be trained in remote access security. If they are not, it is only a matter of time before the facility is attacked. A recent report showed that ransomware attacks comprised over 80% of cyberattacks, and the average payout has climbed to over $220,000.
Because of this threat, some critical systems must have a manual control system to override an attack, or should not be placed into remote control at all. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) recently released a joint Ransomware Guide to help prevent attacks.
The Future of Remote Access
Safety, quality, and convenience will continue to improve for many years to come. As artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) become smarter and more capable, they will be able to detect quality excursions farther out, alerting engineers in real-time.
Remote access will continue to expand and be attacked. Security systems will improve, but so will hacking techniques. Large facilities will need to employ staff to create more robust safety systems and security training plans to limit the impacts of these attacks.
Process plants are usually robust facilities with hundreds of sensors collecting data. Remote access helps narrow the time, safety, contamination, and safety throughout a process plant.