Manufacturers Go Digital to Stay Safe

There’s a war on―a new kind of war.  The enemy is sneaky but deadly, taking thousands of casualties.  A new breed of soldier fights for us, on the hospital ward front lines, equipped with specialized weapons and armor.  Every country is on high alert, fighting this war together.  And, as in many other wars, manufacturers are deeply involved.

A recent survey conducted by ARC Advisory Group and asked over 100 manufacturers large and small around the world what’s happening with them right now, and what they are doing or should have done to prepare for this pandemic.  The results show a wide range of responses, with a common theme―do what it takes to stay safe.

Some firms have had to decrease production and lay off workers.  Others, with the ability to do so, are moving production to locations less impacted by the virus.  Quite a few companies have gone on the offense, switching production to high-demand items.  Car makers are turning out ventilation equipment.  Distilleries are providing alcohol for hand sanitizers.  Some fashion and textile companies are focusing on personal protective gear. The pharmaceutical industry has ramped up production of test kits and other medical supplies. And of course, producers of disinfectants and paper products are working overtime.

Employees Need to Stay Safe

Almost all companies are also on the defense, trying to stay safe, protecting employees who must remain on-site with distancing and physical barriers, installing robots where possible, and by speeding up digital transformation programs, allowing people to work remotely.

“We learned that some manufacturers wish they had put more thought and effort into digital transformation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said. “But many of these companies have since adapted and are now adding new digital technologies and digitally enabled solutions as opportunities arise.”

What kinds of technologies?  They are using artificial intelligence (AI) software to gather real-time production data to calculate risk for what-if scenarios and market fluctuations.  They employ optimization software linked to online processes for in-plant predictive maintenance and off-site supply chain management.  They are connecting OT staff to production data for remote monitoring, and IT staff to analytical tools. All of these technologies rely on secure, real-time connectivity to process data, which Skkynet provides.

The current situation for most companies is in flux.  In-house changes happen daily, while product demand and supply chains are also variable.  At the time of the survey many companies were still preparing for the pandemic, or were operating with reduced staff, shortages, and lack of market data. Among employees, for over 80% of respondents, the three main changes were new sanitation policies, social distancing, and working remotely.

Based on this survey, the ARC Advisory Group recommends increasing adoption of digital technology.  This will allow companies to provide their staff with the abilities to stay safe by working and collaborating remotely, monitoring production systems through digital dashboards.  Along with this recommendation comes moving data and applications to the cloud, as well as improved IT capabilities and cybersecurity. Most companies surveyed were either grateful to be on the path to digital transformation, or making it a top priority to be there.

Remote Operations for the Post-COVID Era

A recent article, Remote Operations for the Post-COVID Era, by Harry Forbes at in ARC Advisory Group, tells how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a greater number of people to work remotely than ever before. The author observes that the need for remote access to production data is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future.

“Supporting a much larger set of remote knowledge workers will be critical for success in the next one to two years and will probably become an expected part of ‘the new, new normal'” Forbes says.

To illustrate the value and practicality of remote operations, Forbes presents a case study of the recently-completed TANAP pipeline project in Turkey. In this system OPC servers across the entire breadth of the country are connected to a central control room, where they are monitored and controlled by production engineers in real time. Skkynet’s DataHub technology was used to provide the secure data connectivity for the project.

Working Remotely to Stop Coronavirus

Companies using Skkynet software and services expect high security for their data communications. They know they can stop computer viruses by keeping all inbound firewall ports closed. Now, with the coronavirus looming large we must do pretty much the same thing in real life. We need to keep our distance and stay behind physical walls as much as possible. And yet work must go on. The data must get through. We need to work remotely, if possible.

The problem is, logging in remotely can be risky.  Typically, you need to expose your servers via the web or a VPN―and that’s a risk that our industrial control customers cannot take.  They need tighter security, to access to their process data without exposing the process servers and networks.  Skkynet’s unique tunnelling technology provides this kind of secure access.  It lets users securely push data from their plants to our SkkyHub service, where they can access it in real time, all without opening firewalls to the outside world.

A Helping Hand

We are now offering this service at no cost to help our customers weather the coronavirus storm. For the next three months any DataHub user can connect to SkkyHub free of charge. A simple tunnel connection provides a way to access data remotely, even through DMZs and proxies. The SkkyHub service includes a web-based interface, SkkyHub WebView, that lets people build dashboards to access their data and interact with their systems from home. Those who are new to WebView can quickly get up to speed, designing pages through its web interface.  With SkkyHub, users can view and operate their control systems remotely as quickly and easily as being right in the control room.

Let’s face it. These are not easy times. Some factories have been forced to shut down, and restarting will be difficult, as Matthew Littlefield at LNS Research explains in this blog, Closing Factories is Hard, Re-Opening will be Harder. Remote access can alleviate these problems to some degree, but it must be reliable and above all, secure.

In another blog, Coronavirus Lessons for Industrial Cybersecurity: Quarantines, Sid Snitkin at ARC Advisory Group compares quarantines for coronavirus to securing industrial systems, and suggests, “Use DMZs, firewalls, zero-trust access control, anti-malware software, awareness training, and security hygiene to reduce the likelihood of an initial compromise.” He also recommends system segmentation to limit lateral movement of viruses, continuous device and system monitoring, and strengthening tools to prevent future attacks.

Doesn’t that sound a little like social distancing, washing hands, not travelling, and keeping our immune systems strong? The social structures we have developed throughout history and the technical systems we have built recently are not as different as we might imagine. They both can serve us well, but we need to protect them and keep them, like ourselves, in good health.

Case Study: Siemens, Argentina

Multiple benefits from remote monitoring

In keeping with their Industrie 4.0 strategy, Siemens recently introduced an initiative they call Digitalization, which offers digital solutions “for more efficiency, sustainability, and security.” As part of this initiative, Siemens promotes the use of data-driven services to monitor power plants, helping to ensure a reliable energy supply. Out in the field, Siemens personnel are working to transform those ideas into real-world projects. Here is the story of one project that has improved power plant performance and reduced emissions, while at the same time reducing transportation costs and man-hours.

A few months ago, Alexis Tricco at Siemens Buenos Aires in Argentina undertook their first digitalization project. In his role of providing technical support backup for power plant generation, he and his team are responsible for supervising operations and introducing new technologies to cut costs and ensure greater reliability of the physical plant. In this project, Tricco was tasked with developing a secure and reliable way to collect data from control systems running at power plants located hundreds of kilometers from the Siemens office. The first phase was to be a pilot—to connect his WinCC OA SCADA system to a Siemens T3000 DCS running at a power plant located about 100 kilometers from Buenos Aires. The live data would be used for supervisory control and developing new predictive control strategies.

A significant challenge of the project was that there were two networks involved, the control network and a multi-customer network, connected by an intermediary computer. “My idea was to bring all the process data onto my WinCC OA Server running on the customer network,” said Tricco, “To get this, I needed to replicate the data from the T3000 to the interface PC and from there to the WInCC OA Server. This basic data access was the first stage of the project.”

Siemens Argentina system diagram

For the data communications protocol Ticco chose OPC, because the T3000 had an OPC server and WinCC has an OPC client. However, since OPC DA does not network well, he decided to tunnel the OPC data over TCP, using a company VPN. After reviewing the OPC tunnelling software that could meet his needs, he chose the Cogent DataHub.

“I needed to communicate over different networks, with end points that could convert between TCP and OPC, acting as server and client simultaneously,” he said. “The DataHub has an OPC server on one side and an OPC client on the other side, which is exactly what I needed. The other software I looked at would have required two licenses for each PC. I had to think of the costs.

“What’s more, the DataHub is user-friendly, not complicated to figure out. I just read the manual one time and got it working in less than a day. We did some tests, and when everything was working we presented the idea to company management for their feedback.”

The pilot was successful, and management decided to implement the solution. Tricco can now go online and collect OPC data from the plant’s T3000 DCS and perform analysis in real time. The system is connected to the WinCC OA server in the Buenos Aires main office complex, in the control room for monitoring remote locations. Like Tricco, company engineers can monitor the performance of each of the power plant’s gas turbines, and use the data to optimize combustion and control emissions to meet government regulatory standards. There is no need to go on site.

“Until now, to optimize combustion at a client location site someone had to drive or fly to the site, at significant cost and loss of man-hours,” said Tricco. “Now, we can do it all remotely. In fact, just sitting at home I can connect to our VPN and customize the process in a couple of hours. Getting data from the customer, we can choose which equipment to monitor in which part of the plant, and whether or not to optimize its performance.”

This initial implementation clearly demonstrates the practical value of digitalization for all parties involved. The customer is pleased with the solution, as they know their plants are operating at the highest possible capacity, while actually reducing emissions. Regulatory agencies laud the increased compliance. And, along with a new revenue stream from offering this service, Siemens builds a stronger relationship with the customer. Plans are currently underway to roll out the solution to two more plants immediately, and then expand the program farther afield.

Renewable Power is Now Affordable

In the late 1980s I was working at company in the USA that sold natural gas through direct purchase. Always on the lookout for new opportunities in the energy field, at one point they gave me a special assignment to research solar energy. We needed to know when solar would be cost-effective, competitive with coal, oil, gas, or nuclear.

In those pre-Internet days, I had to head over to the nearby university library and pore through scientific journals and economic publications to come up with some predictions. From all I could gather, the experts seemed to agree that solar would take at least 5 years before it would be worthwhile to invest in. So the project went on hold, but I was eagerly looking forward to a clean, renewable source of energy to become widely available in the early ’90s.

Well, it has actually taken closer to 30 years, but it appears that the tide is finally turning. A recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) says that renewable power, including solar and wind, were more affordable in 2017 than ever before, and are now strongly competitive in many locations and applications.

A few IRENA report findings

“Renewable power generation costs continue to fall and are already very competitive to meet needs for new capacity.”

“The levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) from solar photovoltaics (PV) decreased by 69% between 2010 and 2016 – coming well into the cost range of fossil fuels.”

“Onshore wind, whose costs fell 18% in the same period, provides very competitive electricity, with projects routinely commissioned nowadays at USD 0.04/kWh.”

“As installation accelerates, the cost equation for renewables just gets better and better. With every doubling of cumulative installed capacity for onshore wind, investment costs drop by 9% while the resulting electricity becomes 15% cheaper.”

I find these statistics very encouraging, because now more than ever, the world needs abundant sources of energy at affordable prices. This is the energy that will power industry, commerce, and households for decades and centuries to come.

Data connectivity plays a role

I’m also pleased that Skkynet is responsible, in a quiet but important way, for some of these cost reductions. With increasingly more efficient and secure data connectivity, our customers who install and monitor wind turbines or solar panels are improving their quality of service and cutting their costs. Ultimately these savings are passed on to the consumers and industrial users of the energy. As the costs continue to drop, investment in renewables will increase.

Of course, conventional power plants, pipelines, and offshore oil platforms are also cutting their costs through secure remote monitoring and supervisory control. Improved access to production data benefits everyone across the board. So, I expect that the changeover to renewables will continue in the same gradual, steady way into the foreseeable future. Let’s see what the next 30 years have in store.

Industrial Product Servitization Via the IIoT

Now there’s a ten-dollar word for you: “servitization.” It has emerged from the trend of industrialized societies to move away from manufacturing-based economies towards service-based economies. Applying this trend to products, the term “servitization” was popularized by Tim Baines at Aston Business School, who sees a “product as a platform for delivering services.” IBM shifts its focus from selling computers to selling business services. Rolls Royce sells propulsion instead of jet engines. Alstom ties its railroad maintenance contracts not to reduced equipment failures, but to fewer “lost customer hours.” These are just a few examples of servitization—a transition from selling products to selling services.

In a recent article, Servitization for Industrial Products, Ralph Rio at ARC Advisory Group shows how the trend of servitization is now impacting the factory floor itself. As production machinery grows increasingly sophisticated, plant managers find their staff less able to maintain and repair it by themselves. They need more services from vendors. Machine builders and OEMs are providing more training, more extensive maintenance contracts, and better condition monitoring of the equipment they supply. “Services have become an inseparable component of the product,” Rio says.


The benefits are significant. Predictive maintenance offered as a service means reduced stoppages due to equipment failure, and fewer but more efficient service calls when problems do arise. A growing trend is to provide condition monitoring services, which guide operators to run their machinery more effectively, increasing the lifespan of the equipment and improving output and product quality.

To be most effective, condition monitoring needs to run 24/7 in real time, ideally via a connection to the equipment vendor or supplier. Thus, the Industrial IoT is the logical choice for data communication. “To implement servitization, suppliers will need to adopt Industrial IoT for condition monitoring,” Rio predicts.

Two-way street

As we see it, this level of service works best as a two-way street. Data related to the condition of the machine flows to the supplier, while guidance and adjustments coming from the supplier can flow back the plant staff and equipment. This kind of feedback is invaluable for optimizing machine performance. A one-way IoT model that simply collects data for off-line analysis may not be adequate for many use cases. Technically more sophisticated, bidirectional data flow is useful in many condition monitoring scenarios, and thus has always been an option for Skkynet customers.

If the lessons of the past few decades are any indicator, the servitization trend will continue to grow, both among industrialized and emerging nations. And the Industrial IoT will almost certainly play an important role in providing data communications. As long as those communications are robust and secure, we can expect to see more and more IoT-based industrial product servitization, even though that term itself may never become a household word.