“Long before COVID- 19, we were applying advancesin web technologies that would allow us to deliver costand mission effective remote support services to our customers,” said Dwight Wood, Vice-President, Global Sales,NovaTech. “Today we are just doing it at a different level—whether it is to troubleshoot issues, support a remotestartup or collaborate on a commissioning.”
The Role for Virtualization
Before COVID- 19, implementing a new process controlsystem would typically entail bringing the experts who developed the application software into a facility to work with plantengineers on design, factory acceptance testing, and startupand commissioning. “Customers want the person who actually developed the code supporting them as directly as possible,”said Wood.
“With our virtualization and simulation technologies, a
customer can now effectively startup a facility and still have
the subject matter expertise on hand in real-time to walk them
through the process,” said Wood. “We will also have already
checked out the system together remotely through a factory
These remote collaborations can significantly reduce the time
spent in the field with a customer in locations where it is still
permitted. Wood estimates that on-site time is now reduced by
half and up to two-thirds. And when lockdown requirements
do not permit a visitor to come on-site, remote support is prov-
ing to be an effective replacement.
Commissioning projects will often involve both software andhardware component with hardware-focused implementationsusually containing some level of software support as well.
Nova Tech Automation integrates an intelligent wearablesolution for customers when a commissioning effort involves hardware so that their support teams can see exactlywhat the technician is viewing such as when wiring an I/Ocabinet or installing a new controller.
The company uses a Real Wear HMT- 1 headset technologythat is a ruggedized Android computer that an operator wearson their head. Instead of using a traditional touch screen, itprovides an articulated micro-display that gives the appearance of a 7-in. tablet screen. The headset is entirely hands-free and uses a voice-based operating system with localspeech recognition. Multiple digital microphones enable usein loud areas. It is designed to be worn with standard hardhats, bump caps, and safety glasses and is for use in explosiveareas, combustible zones, and hazardous environments.
NovaTech uses the headset to provide remote supportthrough established collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Cisco WebEx.
“We have the ability to have our eyes and ears availableto the technician in the plant and assist them in a prudent,real-time manner so that they can install that piece of hardware and do the wiring correctly,” said Wood.
In 2020, one of NovaTech’s customers was upgradingtheir D/3 distributed control system and needed promptengineering support to ensure a smooth transition to theirnew version. The customer had a RealWear headset withMicrosoft Teams installed. After initiating a video call witha NovaTech support engineer, the customer was able toshare their camera and the support engineer walked himthrough the entire upgrade process.
Remote support for software installations must be done withcyber-security in mind requiring multi-factor authentications.
“Our support teams are able to go into the software securely and pull up the same data and screens that a plantengineer sees, so they can assist them through the startup ofa new piece of application software or a software upgrade,”said Wood.
“Some of our customers consider what we have been ableto accomplish together as a paradigm shift in remote support services,” said Wood. “So, as we move out of COVID,we expect more customers will want to move in this direction. Besides lowering the infection risk, there are fewersafety risks overall when you reduce the number of peoplephysically working in a facility. Travel time and costs associated with sending people to a plant are also reduced.”
Reimagining Workflows From
Startup to SOP
Just as the pandemic required operators and vendors toquickly pivot to new remote-based workflows for startupsand commissioning, digital solutions are now available tosupport SOPs for the maintenance and ongoing support ofthe updated equipment and software through augmentedmanual procedure (AMP) software.
AMP software enables facilities to replace their pa-per-based SOPs with a digital format that is capable of operating on a wide range of hardware such as smartphones,PCS, and tablets.
In the field, manual procedures are linked via the operator’s mobile or stationary device interface to the processcontrol platform through software that enables bidirectionalcommunication regarding equipment status and task completion. Information is displayed as an operator-friend-ly checklist with completed tasks self-audited and time-stamped for future reference and compliance reporting. It istherefore ideal for distributed teams working remotely.
AMP software developed by Nova Tech ensures accurateSOP execution along with validation of manual tasks andcomprehensive information capture/sharing. The company views AMP as another example of how technology canbetter support fieldwork. According to NovaTech’s Wood,“Just as we now train and mentor on best practices remotely, afterward facilities can establish or update their SOPsdigitally and integrate them with their existing control system. SOP’s are then much easier to update, streamline andstandardize across the organization in the future.”
A New Era of Remote Support
Whether supporting software or hardware-based projects, expert mentors are increasingly working with operators and technicians remotely to execute upgrades,startups and commissions, complete complex tasks, andsupport training and continuous improvement programs.
“As a partner to our customers, what really excites usabout the coming together of these technologies is theability to provide cost and mission effective real-time support,” said Wood. “We can literally have a window on theirwork with the capability to answer questions, optimize installations, troubleshoot issues, and receive feedback fromour customers. This way of working together is highlycomplementary to being together in-person and we expectthat it will be here to stay in some form well beyond thepandemic.”
Stephen Armstrong is a Tustin, Calif.-based freelance writer. He has researched and written about industrial technologies, healthcare, automotive and international trade for thepast 15 years.
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Advances in hardware and software tools enable remote mentoring to be possible where expert knowledge can be delivered to reduce risks and ensure effective startups.
Photo courtesy of Nova Tech