A Shortcut To Reduced Downtime

Online Editor

Matthew Dulcey presents a step-by-step guide to troubleshooting industrial networks

Keeping pace with Industry 4.0 technologies can be a struggle for field technicians. It takes about four years to fully understand a protocol such as EtherNet/IP or PROFIBUS, but industrial solutions are coming onto the market at an ever-increasing rate. That puts enormous pressure on field technicians. What can be done to close this growing knowledge gap?

The Shrinking Pool Of Engineers

When Industry 4.0 swept across the manufacturing world, there was a consensus that new technology would not only revolutionise the way factories operate but also simplify the way humans work. What wasn’t considered was how an exponential growth in interconnected industrial devices would quickly outpace a network engineer’s capacity to learn.

“It’s a troubling issue,” says Jonathan Machin at Procentec. “With unplanned downtime costing companies an average of US$260,000 an hour, the ever-widening gap between experience and expertise is becoming a serious problem for smart factories.

“Field technicians are being increasingly promoted into roles for which they have inadequate training or inadequate experience – or both,” continues Machin. “This puts them under a lot of pressure when it comes to preventing unplanned downtime.” 

Understanding The 5 Steps Of Troubleshooting

The relative decrease in hands-on expertise concerns Procentec. That’s why the firm puts so much effort into designing solutions that help field technicians maintain industrial networks in a constantly changing environment. The company’s approach is to first understand the process of troubleshooting a potential or actual network failure. It’s identified five clear steps and assigned the time it takes on average for a Procentec technician (i.e. a protocol expert) to complete each step.

Step 1 is to identify the error and take action. Procentec estimates that most physical layer errors take around just 20 minutes to impact a network and possibly force a shutdown, so waiting for a failure to occur is not a good idea. Permanent monitoring solutions such as Atlas2 use (among other things) a traffic light warning system to show immediate action is required.

Step 2 is to access the right data. If an error can’t be identified or averted, it’s time to access the network for data. Specially designed devices help enormously at this stage. Permanent and mobile solutions such as ComBricks and EtherTAP can cut data access time from one, two or three days to less than an hour, depending on the operation and the error.

Step 3 is to analyse the data. The trickiest part of any troubleshooting process is analysing the data. It takes a Procentec technician between 10 and 60 minutes to perform message level diagnostics and interpret oscilloscope images. Inexperienced technicians can spend precious hours on this stage and still end up calling out a support engineer.

Step 4 is to determine the best repair path. Having analysed the data, the error can be categorised and located. The issue is then named and the best way to correct the error is decided. This stage usually takes an expert 15-30 minutes. For those less qualified, virtual engineering assistants such as Delphi (part of the Osiris diagnostic platform) can often provide instant technical advice.

Step 5 is to do the repair. The final stage is to fix the error. In theory, this stage shouldn’t take too long, although several factors come into play. If, for example, essential spare parts aren’t in stock, repair time is extended. Maintaining accurate network drawings and compiling a history of common faults always help to speed up repairs. “Once we’d broken down the troubleshooting process,” says Machin, “we could see clearly that it’s in steps two, three and four where field technicians need expert support. Shorten those steps and you shorten the long path to experience.”

Procentec’s focus on bridging the knowledge gap has produced several innovative hardware and software solutions, plus a certified training academy. “Ultimately, it’s all about empowering humans who use Industry 4.0 technologies. Helping field technicians work smarter, not harder is how you guarantee network stability,” concludes Machin.

Matthew Dulcey is CTO of Procentec

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