IT in Manufacturing

Making Machine-as-a-Service a reality

September 2020 IT in Manufacturing

Thanks to the rise of the IIoT, a new business model has emerged: Machine-as-a-Service. This not only introduced new revenue streams for machine builders, but also gave them a way to verify the feasibility of their new technology in specific applications before charging customers. It also increased business by allowing customers to rent instead of buying machines outright, which may have been cost-prohibitive. For example, Rolls-Royce’s engines are no longer sold to customers. Instead, customers are charged for hourly power generation and more comprehensive maintenance services.

Machine-as-a-Service also has machine builders focusing more on the ‘service’ aspect. By adding IIoT-connected sensors to machines, operational data can be sent to the cloud for big data analysis. This makes improved services such as predictive maintenance and remote maintenance possible. Predictive maintenance ensures smooth, uninterrupted operations by planning and performing maintenance in advance before a breakdown causes unexpected downtime. Remote maintenance not only reduces maintenance costs by reducing site visits, but also allows for faster resolution of issues that may arise. But in order to perform any of these services, secure remote access to machines is required.

Secure connection via VPN

While remote access isn’t a new concept, the most commonly used software-based solutions have shortcomings that can dissuade machine builders. The first method is using remote desktop software. If a machine is connected to a local terminal running remote desktop software, machine builders can quickly establish a dedicated link to the machine. However, many of these remote connections run a high risk of data theft due to a lack of strong encryption. If implemented poorly, malicious actors could gain unauthorised access to the owner’s Intranet because of an unsecured implementation.

The second method is to establish virtual private network (VPN) tunnels. IT staff must plan and maintain the entire network after setting up the IP address, domain name, key ID, a suitable encryption algorithm and more. VPNs require considerable IT support and dedicated IT personnel to ensure that their use will not interfere with Intranets. For many larger or remote projects, this kind of dedicated IT support staff may not be readily available.

Furthermore, VPNs are considered to be safe because they use an independent one-to-one connection to meet security requirements. In other words, each maintenance project requires a dedicated VPN connection to the remote site. From the perspective of a machine builder, each VPN connection is an individual connection that needs to be configured and managed separately. A single VPN tunnel already needs a considerable investment in manpower to support: multiply that by hundreds and the amount of overhead required explodes. With such a huge number of devices scattered between different customers, the cost of establishing, organising and maintaining connections and IT equipment will be overwhelming.

Centralised platforms to the rescue

Fortunately, with recent developments in IoT and cloud platform technology, the issues that plagued these traditional solutions can be solved. Instead of managing individual VPN tunnels, you can use IoT technology to build a centralised platform that can monitor and manage all of your connections. Machine builders can manage all of their remote machines scattered across various locations by using web-based software running on a cloud platform. By using cloud-based software, machine builders can easily access their machines anytime, anywhere. They can choose which sites need to be connected and the connections can be automatically set up to link the machine builders to their client’s machines. This greatly simplifies the tedious burden of configuring and organising VPN connection settings for every remote connection, dramatically reducing maintenance and IT personnel costs.

Currently, there are few manufacturers with industrial-grade hardware and software integration capabilities. Selecting the right partner can be crucial for machine builders that need to manage thousands of connected devices. An experienced partner can provide machine builders with an easily scalable way to create secure connections between humans and machines, making remote maintenance and Machine-as-a-Service possible.


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