Machine builders used to struggle with diagnosing and troubleshooting their equipment when they tried to talk out the problem(s) over the phone with a food processor’s operator or maintenance person. Usually, a local representative—or a technician from headquarters—had to be sent out, only to find the processor could have easily fixed the machine, if the machine builder’s engineer had a better picture of the machine’s status than someone could describe over the phone.
It didn’t take long for machine builders to realize they needed to collect relevant machine status data and make it available for analysis, which was typically done over a dial-up phone line. While the phone line had the potential to provide the right data to diagnose and repair a machine, it was slow and didn’t provide the bandwidth to monitor all the machine’s key metrics. The one thing the line did provide, however, was security.
Enter the Internet. It has the bandwidth, speed and performance to monitor a machine in real time and enables video diagnostics. The problem? Security—or at least that’s a perceived problem. Many manufacturers still balk at hooking their machines up to the Internet.
In 2001, Spencer Cramer and Brett Smith of ei3 filed a patent application for a system and method for providing virtual online engineering of a production environment. Granted in 2006, the patent includes hardware and software for machine builders to monitor their machines at a user location securely over the Internet. But, keeping up with Internet security and fighting off hacks are ongoing challenges that demand continual innovation.
FE discussed the patent and technology with Cramer, ei3’s CEO.
FE: What was the technology landscape that led you to starting ei3 and making it practical to monitor machine equipment remotely?
Spencer Cramer: In the late 1990s, I was responsible for plant floor computers that monitored machine production. This experience led me to the idea of moving data collection off the plant floor and into a professionally managed data center. This move would solve many operational challenges. But at the time, wide area network communications was very expensive. In fact, the catalyst that convinced me to start ei3 was the arrival of DSL [digital subscriber line] and the promise of affordable broadband Internet available everywhere. That’s when I realized the Internet was going to be the best way to monitor machines. After going through a round of seed financing, ei3 opened its doors in 2000 and began delivering services for the remote monitoring of equipment. Our team learned a lot about network communications, which led to the technology that was patented in 2001. In the years since, ei3 has been providing industrial Internet services.
FE: What did you view as your company’s mission?
Cramer: From the beginning, ei3’s mission has been to change the way companies manage their productivity and sustainability by providing them with a packaged technology to harness the business value of the industrial Internet. ei3’s strategy is to provide a private-label, turnkey industrial Internet solution to machinery building companies. This structure makes it easy for OEMs to incorporate ei3 technology into their machines and provide their customers with mature, proven industrial Internet services.
FE: Your machine-to-machine (M2M) monitoring system consists of both hardware and software. What devices can be used to do the actual monitoring?
Cramer: ei3’s approach to monitoring is one factor that enabled us to gain traction in the market. We decided in the beginning that ei3’s solution would include a hardware device that is optimized to create a secure link between a server in a data center and the digital devices that control machines. Over time, ei3 has created a large library of monitoring software methods that work together with our hardware to securely monitor the values inside PLCs, computers, motion controllers, instruments and other devices that are part of a machine control system. This approach leverages the machine’s installed devices to provide the source of monitored data with the sensors—the most expensive part of a monitoring solution—already in place.
FE: Internet security was an oxymoron early on except for hardware firewalls that could be added to PLCs. Part of your solution is hardware. Can you describe its functionality?
Cramer: I agree. Too many people still see Internet security as an oxymoron, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to build secure networks through the Internet by following established network security best practices. We’ve implemented these within ei3’s family of Amphion hardware devices. The benefits of our Amphion devices include their firewall security policies, networking convenience features and industrialized physical packaging. In most applications, the devices are used to perform the roles of firewalling, network address translation (NAT) and routing.
FE: What is the software part of the equation?
Cramer: The industrial Internet is made possible by the intersection of secure communications, big data methods and powerful processing. So, our development efforts are equally invested in all three areas. As a result, our applications process large data sets to come up with valuable key performance indicators [KPIs] that describe a machine’s productivity, quality, uptime and OEE. For each of these KPIs, we have applications that provide tools to hone in operations by showing values geared toward quality management, downtime tracking and engineering performance analysis.
FE: How do you work with a machine builder to apply a safe, secure monitoring solution via the Internet?
Cramer: Machine builders come to us for two reasons: one is the ei3 remote service platform and the other is our remote monitoring cloud.
Machine builders reduce their own costs for startup and warranty by using ei3’s managed security services to establish secure links between their technical teams and the machines in the field. Their customers appreciate having ei3 manage the security of the remote services. In their minds, this is better than having to accommodate a custom remote access solution delivered by many different machine builders.
Machine builders also provide remote monitoring services based on our hosted, multi-tenancy application. ei3 works closely with a number of machine builders to provide industrial Internet offerings. Usually, we become part of the machine builder’s team and help define the value proposition, technology requirements, marketing and other things. Depending on the requirements, ei3 sometimes develops new software to expand our capabilities, while other times, the machine builder develops expansions to its controllers.
FE: Is the ei3 solution also a controls solution?
Cramer: Today’s Internet simply does not have the performance for the demanding requirements of machine controls. So, ei3’s technology is not set up to control machines. That said, we do play an important role in presetting a machine in the control of a process, and in particular, ei3 delivers a batch/recipe management module. This web application holds the programs of machine settings that are ready to be called up by an operator and used to preset the machine—or line—for a particular type of product to be made. An added plus is that everything is backed up off site, providing a complete disaster recovery system.
FE: Do you provide monitoring for equipment installed at any food processor locations?
Cramer: So far, ei3 applications have not been installed on any food processing machines, but we do currently service applications in the food packaging market. We believe food [processing] is a key industry that is ready for our technology, and we are taking steps to increase our presence.
For more information, visit www.ei3.com.