Digital transformation of production already allows access to information about ongoing production processes from anywhere, and from essentially any "smart" device with access to the Internet. It is even possible to manage and control automated facilities remotely.
Automated and digitised production facilities generate a large amount of data and information, which can be used to gain an overview of the current state of production with relative ease. This is particularly important from the perspective of management and servicing, which can now use a phone or tablet, anytime, anywhere, to find out at whether production machinery is working correctly or not, what its efficiency or operating parameters are, and so much more. This information can be gathered from production lines located anywhere in the world, allowing the user to globally monitor all key production parameters through a single interface.
Remote access of this kind does not allow active input into production by, for instance, making changes to operating parameters, and is thus less risky in terms of security. Despite that, it still provides access to sensitive information that must be properly protected from unauthorised access. To this end, there is plenty of reliable technology that can be used for verification and authentication, whether the information is accessed through specialised applications or through a web interface.
Optimisation of Production on the Go
If we already have remote access to data and information from production, the question is what to do with it next. One option is to use the data to test various methods of optimising production or model changes to the production regimen. Such efforts are only limited by the amount of data we have available, and the range of parameters that we want to, or are able to, adjust. Modelling and simulations themselves will take place on devices with high computing power (e.g. company servers or cloud-based virtual servers) and not directly on mobile devices. Aside from production parameters, models can also work with economic or operating data, such as energy consumption, workforce capacity, etc.
Similar to accessing production data for the purposes of monitoring, modelling of parameters has no direct impact on the machinery and thus does not pose an increased security risk. It is essentially just remote access to analytical and modelling tools commonly used in production management and planning.
"Remote Control" Devices
If we take another step forward and move away from the remote monitoring and modelling of parameters towards the changing of production parameters online, we truly start talking about controlling production technologies remotely. But in order to be able to securely and safely control production machinery via remote access, it is absolutely necessary to meet several crucial prerequisites.
The first and most fundamental of these is a clearly defined architecture of the control and information system without any undocumented exceptions, provisional and subsequently unfinished solutions, or any other anomalies that were not accounted for in the original design, and which may present a security risk. It is also necessary to clearly define the rights of individual users to access data and remotely perform defined operations. For example, service engineers who will be given remote access should be allowed to remotely adjust only those production machines they are directly responsible for. The personnel must also be properly trained to be vigilant and rigorously follow security and safety measures – so that they do not, for instance, walk away from their computer without locking it, or leave their phone on the table with the control panel open.
This brings us to the second key prerequisite: the highest possible cybersecurity. Industrial companies are an ever more frequent target of hacker attacks. To even be able to start considering the option of controlling production remotely, it is necessary that operational technologies (OT) and information technologies (IT) are interconnected, which results in critical security risks. Since OT networks were not commonly accessible from outside the company premises in the past, their security was not given the proper attention. However, with the onset of Industry 4.0, OT and IT networks are becoming linked, which greatly increases the risk of unauthorised outside intervention.
Cybersecurity of production technologies is a discipline unto itself. The specific steps towards cybersecurity should follow clear rules, such as those defined by the IEC 62443 standard, and should undergo regular audits.
Do We Need to Control Factories Remotely?
After evaluating the potential risks, difficulties and pitfalls of implementing the option to remotely control production devices, the next logical question is: do we even need all this? It is up to the owners and key stakeholders of the production equipment to find the answer, as they are best positioned to assess the efficiency and rate of return on such an investment. However, a quite compelling supportive argument can be found in the remote servicing of production facilities, ideally in combination with predictive maintenance. Remote access can generally aid in increasing the efficiency of production technologies and shortening downtimes. I have discussed other reasons for remote access and the option to remotely control the production process in my previous article.
But there is another way to make use of remote access to production technologies – making them more directly available to end customers. What if we could directly configure and input different products into production? What if the planning and control system could tell us, in real time, when our part will be ready, based on availability of materials and components? What if it could also suggest alternatives with faster availability if we change, for instance, the colour of the part or some other property? Then, we could truly have a factory in our mobile phone, and the path between the formulation of a customer's demand and the satisfaction of this demand would become considerably shorter.
Published December 2, 2020