The ability to head off tomorrow's failure is today's reality — even if you're not there.
The concept of remote predictive monitoring (RPdM) seems simple enough, and the capacity to carry it out has been around for a while. To produce an RPdM system, a manufacturer must add Ethernet or wireless connectivity to a predictive monitor. With rare exceptions (see sidebar below), you can achieve this through new combinations of existing equipment — not breakthroughs in new technology. If the technology isn't new, what's new about RPdM? Various combinations of technologies give us new capabilities for reducing costs and downtime, and increasing productivity.
Monitoring systems have long been able to sound an alarm or flash a light (based on operating set points) to alert an attendant, who would then phone or page the appropriate maintenance person. Today's RPdM systems go much further. They can detect an alarm condition and automatically contact — via pager, phone, e-mail, or fax — the appropriate people. You can configure an RPdM system to signal a control system to begin an automated shutdown sequence or other action in response to a problem.
What can you monitor? Individual monitoring products — and complete monitoring systems — exist for motors, elevators, UPS and HVAC systems, pumps, chillers, generators, diesel engines, turbines, switchgear, individual breakers, transfer switches, grounding systems, power distribution panels, transformers, and fuel delivery systems. This enables you to monitor critical processes and critical equipment so you never have unwelcome surprises. Whether you are the maintenance manager away at a conference or a project manager with a service contract, your RPdM system keeps you ahead of the uptime game. Gone are the days when you would attend a production meeting, give a report on your preventive maintenance program, and walk out to find a piece of major equipment had self-destructed only minutes ago. An RPdM system is especially helpful if you manage a multisite operation — something that is increasingly common.
If you think these capabilities are beyond your budgetary reach, it's time to reconsider. The same semiconductor advances that make it possible to build a powerful computer for a relatively low price have had a similar effect on RPdM equipment. The plummeting costs and increasing power of RPdM systems puts them in reach of nearly every facility. Even wireless remote — once thought too exotic and expensive for mainstream use — is now increasingly mainstream. The operational benefits and low costs of ownership make adding RPdM to a facility's uptime strategy an attractive option. In fact, today's competitive environment makes RPdM almost mandatory.
The big trends. Remember, it's no trick to give a monitoring system remote capabilities. The trick is to make the monitoring capabilities useful within the framework of user resources and expertise, and the RPdM industry is making great strides to that end. Most developments in RPdM support one of these trends:
Increased intelligence at the point of measurement.
Decreased reliance on expertise to interpret the results.
Increased outsourcing of third-party monitoring.
Multisite maintenance operations.
Increased intelligence at the point of measurement. For the most part, a monitoring system measures “background noise.” During normal operation, the measurements produce the same useless data over and over. If sent in raw form, this stream of bits and bytes would overwhelm a network and the person wading through it all at the other end. Intelligent monitors remove the meaningless data and send you only useful information. This reduces network traffic by orders of magnitude and allows you to focus on what's important.
Today, we have smart power monitors, smart switchgear, and smart generators. A smart customer will look at all of these devices and develop a network of such devices to provide a complete system. You can automate maintenance schedules based on actual conditions, and key players can view the condition of any system, subsystem, or major component — any time from any place, via a secure browser. The focus on useful information — rather than a torrent of data — permits access, even by a slow serial communications link or analog modem.
Decreased reliance on expertise to interpret the results. Initially, deciphering the information gathered through remote monitoring involved organizing it so a technically astute person could figure out what to do. However, it's a major problem for one site or one company to employ people technically astute enough to understand all the various permutations of anomalies in power monitoring, switchgear, generators, motors, security, and other systems. To help solve this problem, RPdM systems can interpret the measurements and produce reports that aid analysis. The sheer computing power to allow this wasn't economically feasible a few years ago, but today powerful microprocessors are relatively inexpensive. This means less effort for the user. For example, you no longer have to memorize several motor vibration signatures to see that lubrication problems are causing rear thrust bearings to fail.
Increased outsourcing of third-party monitoring. It's nice to be able to package remote monitoring results so any technically astute person can understand them, but this isn't possible with all types of measurement. When analyzing the information in-house isn't possible, you can outsource the expertise — often along with the monitoring.
Remote power monitors display screens of phasor diagrams, power relationships, harmonic content, and harmonic power — with both graphic and tabular data. Some advanced measurement capabilities require advanced training to understand. Manufacturers know certain information is too difficult for most to work with, but they include it because it is sometimes necessary for solving power problems and ensuring uptime. These systems have communications capabilities so third parties — whose advanced training and specialized experience enable them to work with this information — can recommend or initiate corrective action. Third parties include a company's own central engineering staff (rather than site staff), a specialist firm unrelated to the customer or the vendor, or the vendor itself.
Multisite maintenance operations. In the past, individual sites typically had their own maintenance crews. Specialized expertise necessary for maintaining equipment combined with pressure to reduce indirect labor costs make this more the exception than the rule; service contracts have become the norm. You may obtain service contracts for specific equipment or an entire maintenance operation. Thus, maintenance managers — whether they are vendors, contractors, or company employees — are increasingly responsible for maintenance and repair operations at locations where they aren't usually present.
This trend is evident in data centers, where one engineer may be responsible for several properties hundreds of miles apart. It's also common in commercial buildings, where a maintenance firm is on contract to keep the electrical infrastructure working. In this case, the owner, who wants power issues to be “transparent,” has no electrical personnel onsite. Industrial equipment vendors are increasingly following the model of office equipment vendors like Xerox, which leases its copiers and printers and then handles the maintenance because nobody knows its copiers and printers like it does. Many of these vendors use RPdM to cut maintenance costs, whether they are maintaining switchgear or motor drives.
The future of RPdM. RPdM vendors are using existing technologies to deliver powerful predictive abilities affordably. We will continue to see new applications of existing technologies more often than new inventions. As broadband technologies mature and decrease in price, applications will more closely simulate actually being onsite. Will we soon have remote control video via PDA? The answer, most likely, is yes. Will vendors tie RPdM and remote control together? They already do, but more convergence is on the way. While RPdM gives us new abilities — with others to come -- the goal of RPdM is the same one we've had all along: increased uptime at lower cost.
Sidebar: Off the Shelf
RPdM vendors use "off the shelf" technology — but not always. For example, new technologies are emerging that incorporate high frequency monitoring to measure structure-borne sound instead of motion. This means earlier detection of abnormal bearing wear, misalignment, and other conditions that lead to downtime. But for the most part, the developments in RPdM are new, often innovative, applications of existing technology.