Ensuring business continuity remotely

20 October 2020

Following the issues posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Jörg Freitag explains how digital remote applications can offer a cost-effective alternative to enable efficient co-operation from a safe distance.

Travel and contact restrictions have been put in place across Europe in a bid to contain the current Covid-19 pandemic. Despite these restrictions it is vital that production processes continue and plants continue to be maintained. Further, many new engineering projects, which were temporarily suspended now need to be continued and plants need be brought back into operation and optimised – despite strict new restrictions. 

Ideally, employees need to undergo in-depth training parallel to all these activities to ensure the safe and secure management and maintenance of processes and workflows. Today, all this would not be possible without efficient, secure solutions for engineering, commissioning, operations, service and maintenance from a safe distance – in short, individually adapted home office solutions for daily industrial production. 

Siemens has been supporting both production plant manufacturers and operators with powerful remote solutions for many years – from digital tools for secure remote access to distant machines and plants, to efficient remote services, to virtual cooperation platforms for projects. From engineering to virtual commissioning and operator training on the Digital Twin of the plant right up to operations and service – today all this can be done remotely and conveniently from home anywhere in the world. 

Secure remote access
Combined with Scalance industrial routers from Siemens, Sinema Remote Connect management platform offers a solution for coping with restrictions and mitigating their impact – via a VPN (Virtual Private Network) tunnel, secured remote access to machines and plants can be set up and managed from virtually anywhere in the world. 

Independently from each other, both the service technician and the plant can establish a secure VPN tunnel connection to a central Sinema Remote Connect server. VPN tunnel connections allow the user to access private, wired SHDSL or Profibus networks. Plant or service technicians can use public networks to access the Sinema RC server – either wired, LAN-based via DSL, or wirelessly via mobile wireless communication (2G/ 3G/ 4G). Only afterwards does remote access to a machine become possible. The central server manages all VPN connections and users – even with centralised user authentication, making handling very convenient. Integrated security mechanisms, such as OpenVPN, IPsec or Firewalls, protect the target systems from unauthorised access. This enables different types of plants to remain up and running or put (back) into operation without any personal contact. 

Virtual cooperation 
The common Remote Service platform (cRSP) from Siemens can go further: Via Siemens’ own platform, remote access can be set up to satisfy the most complex requirements without the user having to worry about hosting, setup, keeping the access up and running, etc. This means that even challenging engineering, commissioning and maintenance tasks can be carried out securely and conveniently on automation systems via remote access. 

Set up in three computing centers the high-availability platform uses existing communication routes via Internet (DSL, 3G, 4G, etc) to establish a secure connection via VPN. The global Siemens expert network can be accessed from any plant or machine connected to the cRSP. And via an optional Customer Web Portal, specialists from plant manufacturers and/or plant operators can also benefit from external access to the services. In this case too, both sides must actively set up connections, with the plant operator always remaining in control. The solution meets all the requirements for a documented information security management system set out in ISO27001/CERT – including encrypted end-to-end communication, 2-factor authentication, and access logging.

The technology enables numerous applications, such as remote desktop sharing in compliance with the industrial security standards defined in IEC 62443 and security regulations. Two prime examples include accessing parameterisation software for field devices; or, in the field of process control system engineering, accessing the software on connected systems/field devices via Simatic PCS 7 ES and JumpHost to carry out engineering tasks. 

In one application – a Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) which had been interrupted due to the lockdown –programmers were able to complete their work remotely via cRSP – and in another case, they succeeded in putting production plant back into operation on schedule after retooling it for the production of basic materials which are essential in these times of crisis.

In view of the increasing complexity of today’s modern machines and plants, all employees involved require more and more comprehensive specialist know-how. In the event of malfunctions or breakdowns during plant commissioning or operation, locating the cause of trouble quickly and responding correctly is crucial in order to keep the downtime as short as possible. Specialists from both the plant operator and the product or plant manufacturer can contribute their expertise to ensure this – thanks to Siemens Process Industry Expert Service Devices (Sipix SD) for remote-assisted collaboration. Based on video technology, this allows one or more experts to instruct and guide the on-site service technician. Video images and sound are transmitted to a service device via an autonomous, secure communication channel provided by the cRSP. Three variants are available for use up to Ex-Zone 1. It is also possible to connect further devices – such as a HART modem, a helmet camera or data glasses. This means that the service technician on site has his hands free, ensuring that he can focus on the essentials. 

The ability to employ scalable solutions for the simulation and virtual commissioning of automation systems helps plant manufacturers to avoid project delays caused by contact restrictions. The core components for first-time users are a license for the Simit simulation platform and two virtual controllers, digital equivalents to the Simatic S7-400 automation system. A Component Type Editor is required for creating special graphical operating templates – along with the Flownet, ChemBasic and Contec block libraries which are tailored for process control and process engineering and enable the simulation of internal plant communication. Generated in this manner, the Digital Twin of a real automation system allows the simulation, testing and optimisation of a plant’s behaviour on a PC, and even the virtual commissioning of more complex software. Projects can thus mature in the home office, minimising delays during real-life commissioning. 

The Digital Twin can also be used for location-independent, low-contact training outside the plants in order to ensure that well trained operators are able to safely and securely manage the plant and produce high-quality products. 

Comos, the software solution for holistic plant project management, also has a big role to play. Comos Walkinside enables the 3D Virtual Reality visualisation of plants still under construction, providing future maintenance and operations teams with realistic training on the virtual model. 

Remote applications can above provide various support options for both manufacturers and operators in order to maintain high levels of availability and productivity of machines and plants. This will be of prime importance for industrial production under ‘new normal’ conditions.

Jörg Freitag is VP sales & verticals Process Automation at Siemens.

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