Not that long ago, getting support for your automation meant a technician hopped on a plane to visit. Of course, Remote Support is the norm now. How do you define “Remote Support” and how might it vary? To answer that question, it’s good to understand how some of the tools have worked and remote connectivity has evolved.
When “Fulfillment Automation” was typically just a conveyor system that moved things around, PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) were the “brains”. Like your dishwasher, their tasks didn’t vary much. The benefits of PLCs are that they are ultra-reliable and maintainable for many years.
To capture more business value, systems were tasked with handling more information for intelligent batching and directing order pickers or robots, driving or automating pack processes, quality inspections, optimizing shipping, and rate-shopping carriers. A PC or server-based system with a relational database provides a great fit for this.
The use of screen share apps like Webex, GotoMeeting, or native Windows RDP is a good first step in providing support, especially for connectivity and software issues. What about the PLC and the other industrial items? Typically the technician must actually be on the same network to provide PLC support, or the PLC software needs to be hosted locally.
A private VPN solves the accessibility issue, although there are other downsides. For an automation supplier like StreamTech, navigating the different security paperwork and varying interface programs can be complex and add cost. “Named user” policies are especially problematic as it limits our ability to share support amongst technicians. Even with all this security we’ve noticed customers inadvertently give us access to confidential information.
StreamTech has had good success with an Industrial VPN router, also known as eWON, which solves the issues of the alternatives mentioned above. The VPN router is connected to the Talk2M server. StreamTech connects to the Talk2M account and selects the appropriate router; and a 2048-bit encrypted, fully secure VPN tunnel is set up between the support engineer and the customer’s machine. The Router is isolated from the Internet using a private, non-reachable IP address. The customer can enable or disable the VPN access at any time. A full audit trail and traceability is provided by a regular connectivity report.
We can still navigate within our machine network but we are isolated from the customer’s business network. The customer can manage our access. As a part of our support plan, we can also allow customers to view their own systems through our eWON; this can be especially helpful for customers with multiple facilities.