Stephen Witherden, Beca’s Technical Fellow – Software Engineering, looks at some simple tools the industrial sector can consider to support production and plant remotely.
A lot of our industrial clients are focused on keeping their operations working in the current pandemic situation. Especially in the food and beverage space where keeping food on people's tables is crucial. Traditionally, we have thought of manufacturing workers as being present on the factory floor, but that's not entirely true in the modern age. Even if your factory is not a "lights out" facility, many people who work there don't actually need to be there, not all the time. Here are some ideas I have heard for how to work from home.
Online collaboration tools:
This might sound quite simplistic, but many organisations have yet to fully embrace the power of the Internet to get their operations working online rather than in person. It doesn't need to be a huge complex investment. You can now use tools like Zoom, Discord, Slack, Skype or Microsoft teams to have online meetings rather than in person meetings. You can use Google Docs, Office 365, Share File and other collaboration tools for sharing data, documents and other forms of digital data so you don't need to meet with people in person.
All these tools have privacy and security implications, so make sure you carefully think about your privacy and security needs first before launching into the use of a new cloud based product.
Remote assistance tools:
The less people you can have in one place the better. It's common to have an expert operator overseeing multiple less experienced team members and if you can keep them separate, this reduces the liklihood that your scarce gurus get sick or overworked from all the demand this pandemic is putting on them. Technologies like RealWear, Hololens, Vuzix Blade, or even just a tablet could allow solutions like remote expert assistance where you have an expert on your shoulder guiding you through the process without even being there.
Reality Capture and Digital Twinning:
Sometimes you need to see the factory, but you don't need to see the actual factory. In fact, we have found you can be more productive at solving problems zooming around the factory floor at your desk than walking the floor physically. This could be something as simple as 360 degree imagery of the plant available online, a detailed point cloud capture of every nut and bolt, or as sophisticated as a live BIM (Building Information Modelling) model, integrated into real time data of how the plant is operating. The nice thing about this kind of technology is you don't need to invest in the whiz bang solution right off the bat, you can take the information you already have and make it more available to people.
IoT / Remote control:
In the industrial world, IoT is sometimes seen as a bit of a gimmick, but hear me out for a second. One of the great advantages of IoT over traditional SCADA is that IoT is Internet connected as a matter of course, meaning you can access it from anywhere in the world. Of course, this needs to be deployed very carefully with strong security in place and I do sometimes worry that in their rush to embrce IoT some people are skipping this important step.
As for remote control, providing VPN access to existing systems is quite straightforward technically and can dramatically reduce touch points in the organisation, but once again security is of the utmost importance here too.
Some organisations are still unsure about their ability to work remotely, but the technical problems have been solved for some time. What's missing is operationalising this and changing our business processes to take the technology into account. All the best to everyone who is supporting our essential services and industries during the current crisis and, of course, utmost thanks and gratitude to all our frontline healthcare workers!