Remote Monitoring Services Offer Users Competitive Advantage
Mark Sen Gupta,
Research Director,
ARC Advisory Group

Market demand for remote monitoring of automation systems, especially in industries such as oil and gas, continues to increase as revenue pressures and even demographics force end users to seek new ways to address costs. Some end users have concluded that they are not in the automation business, much like an individual relies on a mechanic to maintain their vehicle, and they should consider relying on entities whose business is automation. Many plants have reduced headcounts, forcing them to operate with fewer resources . Remote monitoring services offer a viable solution for owner-operators to improve reliability, improve performance, and reduce risks, especially when operating with limited internal resources.

Most automation suppliers offer some form of remote monitoring – either continuous or on-demand - for their control systems. In fact, suppliers have begun to grow their remote monitoring por tfolios to better meet their customers’ needs. In all cases, users can be aler ted automatically when corrective actions are required. If the end user needs assistance with a work function or repair, the automation supplier can provide remote or on-site suppor t, as needed. At larger installations, the automation supplier might dedicate specialists to monitor that site remotely, or even staff ser vice personnel on site on a permanent basis. Generally, the user will allow the supplier remote, read-only access to their systems as needed to collect and analyze data, per form system health checks, evaluate control and optimization schemes, and troubleshoot issues. End users will usually only give the supplier authorization to make changes to the system in a closely super vised environment. However, this is beginning to change. There are a select few end users that have opted to give the supplier full responsibility for the maintenance of the automation system. The supplier, in this case, work with the end user to ensure there are no surprises to operations during any work performed.

Remote monitoring often provides a cost-effective vehicle for end users to supplement their in-house maintenance functions. It can help prevent asset failures, quickly resolve any failures that may occur, and help prolong asset life. In addition, remote monitoring increases the overall system reliability, availability, and operational performance by reducing the risks of asset failure and unscheduled downtime. Through remote monitoring, users have quicker access to their control system supplier's experts and can reduce or eliminate the often-significant costs that would otherwise be incurred if the supplier's exper ts had to travel to their facilities.

Limiting Risks with Remote Condition Monitoring

Remote monitoring will not replace hands-on work performed on the plant floor or in the field. It can reduce response, analysis, and remediation times. The most costly incident in a plant is unscheduled downtime. Exposure to this risk can be reduced through a combination of predictive and preventive maintenance activities. Information is gathered from the plant floor via mobile hand-held, wired, or wireless condition monitoring instrumentation. System health can be measured on a continuous or near -continuous basis. Whether collected remotely, on-site, or via a combination of the two, the plant floor data can be used to create predictive maintenance programs to help prevent asset failures, with maintenance activities scheduled to minimize production interruptions. The plant floor data collected via remote monitoring can also be used to help evaluate loop performance, production quality, and throughput against targets and known process and asset constraints. Some manufacturers have started deploying predictive analytics which have increased the amount of time to remedy these potential problems.

Enhancing Support and Maintenance Functions

Over the past five years, manufacturing industries shed thousands of jobs. This resulted in a skill and knowledge gap, which is now being exacerbated by retiring baby-boomers. In response, many facilities have begun to implement advanced predictive maintenance practices to supplement their existing preventive maintenance. In this environment, remote monitoring services can provide around-the-clock monitoring capabilities, as well as provide the expert analysis needed to perform predictive maintenance and optimization functions. In cases where the knowledge does exist in house, the expertise from the supplier can serve as a valuable second opinion and assist plant personnel identify, analyze, and resolve problems.

Cybersecurity Concerns

As hackers continue to increase their sophistication across the globe, many industrial end users are reluctant to provide even trusted suppliers with 24 -hour remote access to their installed control systems. Corporate IT policies and physical firewalls remain major obstacles, but are being overcome as end users understand the risks and rewards.

While end users remain cautious about providing significant access to their systems, automation suppliers are taking proactive measures to ensure the integrity of data. These include authentication, encryption, registered users with limited privileges, secure control rooms, and secure VPNs. Some suppliers include cybersecurity monitoring as part of their services which can also mitigate vulnerabilities. In many cases, these supplier-provided cybersecurity services create a more secure environment because end users lack the resources to actively monitor the control system infrastructure.

Summing up

In a world where even the slightest competitive edge can make or break an operation, remote monitoring services in the oil and gas industry can offer considerable value by helping to minimize unplanned downtime and improving asset performance. Not only does it allow end users to augment their depleted and often under-skilled staff, as well as bolster the knowledge that is available on demand, but it also has the ability to unlock the potential the large amount of data that control systems are already collecting from both process and condition monitoring instruments and applications.

Generally speaking, the ability for end users to hire and maintain personnel capable of maintaining automation systems is quite limited when compared with the suppliers of those systems. The best way to secure and maintain the automation systems in peak performance is to have the best personnel dedicated to that task. Recognizing this will be key for owner operators, especially as automation systems increase in complexity. By outsourcing these tasks, end users can use their limited resources to focus on how best to control the process, a task that actually affects revenue.

While remote monitoring is especially appropriate during lean periods due to the significant potential benefits, ARC believes that all industrial organizations will incorporate remote monitoring into their operating and maintenance strategies to some degree as a matter of necessity.