Performing predictive maintenance or trouble-shooting diagnostics on production machines that are located in remote or hard-to-access places is now easier, thanks to software that uses the power of the Internet to let engineers view data and perform tests--from anywhere.

Some companies, such as Advanced Systems & Designs (Troy, MI) and International Metrology Systems (Novi, MI), and already offer remote monitoring on test, measurement and inspection equipment. But several companies now offer machine-level software that allows engineers to remotely monitor production equipment for tell-tale signs of machine problems such as vibration, which might be a clue to bearing wear. These programs can capture data, perform statistical process control (SPC) and alert plant personnel to out-of-control processes. This is important because production lines often feature few attending operators and multiple machines supplied by many vendors. Also, complex production machines often require experts to solve problems; tapping into that expertise without having to pay travel expenses could be an added bonus.

At least three companies now offer remote monitoring software and service options to analyze the collected data. The companies are GE Cisco (Charlottesville, VA), Motorola Global Software Group (Elk Grove Village, IL) and Rockwell Automation (Bloomington, MN).

Motorola's product, Manufacturing Pulse, was developed for use at its own factory. Dan Kauss, an engineer and business development manager for Motorola, says the company took a traditional software package that could produce control charts, Pareto charts, and other individual charts, and added a standard communication protocol to plug into the machine to make data consistent between machines. The software, Kauss says, led to documented process improvements ranging from 2% to 30% and helped the company achieve its Six Sigma Quality goals.

"A factory typically consists of multiple machines from multiple vendors, each with its own data communication structure," says Kauss. "Users previously had to take information from a machine and then plug that data into an offline tool. It was always an after-the-fact effort."

Manufacturing Pulse software monitors production lines at the machine level, collecting data on the performance of individual machines for analysis. It allows on-site engineers and machine operators to continuously monitor quality through real-time collection of SPC data. Alarms automatically trigger when control limits are exceeded.

Motorola experts can view data remotely and perform diagnostics or they can set up control limits for a particular facility. In one case, Motorola engineers analyzed machine errors from multiple troublesome machines and were able to use this data to develop control limits and program the machines to alert operators when they went out of control. "We tried to make it simple for an operator," says Kauss. "If they get an alarm, they click on it and the software tells them what to do." Catching the problem before out-of-spec products were produced, the company reduced its error rate by 30% and the machinery's variability by 50%.

GE Cisco also has a product that monitors machine processes remotely. The product is called e-Diagnostics, also known as Remote Monitoring & Diagnostics (RM&D), and it too captures real-time equipment data from remote locations. Performance data can be compared around the world via the Internet and engineers can make corrections or enhancements to installed units anytime, anywhere. Equipment can be visually monitored in real-time, using existing software or GE's Cimplicity software suite, to identify faults and track performance for preventive and predictive maintenance.

"In the past, even if a supplier had a service-and-repair expert on site, time was still consumed troubleshooting faults," says Phil Danner, vice president of technology for GE Cisco. "Now, the supplier can monitor the equipment from anywhere in the world, pinpoint fault sources, immediately resolve the problem or dispatch expert service and return the machine to production in a fraction of the time."

The company says a key component of the software is the protection it offers the manufacturer from unauthorized access to business-critical information. GE Cisco leverages encryption, authentication and nonrepudiation technologies for security and traceability.

Rockwell Automation's product is called Reliability Online. It allows companies to outsource the analysis of machine-status data--via the Internet--as part of a preventative maintenance strategy.

Reliability Online uses the Internet and the expertise of Rockwell Automation specialists to deliver an integrated condition-monitoring program. On a predetermined basis, such as weekly or monthly, machine condition data is gathered by on-site personnel using handheld data collectors or by permanently mounted surveillance modules. Once gathered, the data is uploaded to a secure Web site where Rockwell's specialists analyze the data and issue a status report within two working days.

This monitoring assesses ma-chine health by monitoring the machine's operating parameters such as vibration, process values, oil analysis and thermography, to determine when maintenance measures are necessary.

"In many industries, it may be difficult or cost-prohibitive to implement on-site monitoring and analysis," says Mike Kmetz, capability manager for Rockwell Automation Asset Management. "Through Reliability Online, machine conditions can be monitored with a minimum investment in equipment, training and personnel. By helping customers periodically monitor their machinery's operating parameters, it enables them to detect machine problems early enough to allow for planned maintenance, instead of more costly breakdown maintenance."