2017 IoT Innovator Award

SinIoT Innovator Jeff Murrayce the early 2000’s, Control Point has been helping customers connect their equipment and software systems together via Ethernet communications. Typically, this has meant intelligent devices like controllers, PLC’s, and HMI’s being connected back to SCADA software. Today, more and more devices have the intelligence to communicate via Ethernet giving us the ability to share more data easily. Further, the prevalence of the internet has changed how people wish to view and receive this information. After listening to and working closely with our clients we recognized this evolution in industrial connectivity at an early stage. Control Point today offers solutions that provide data via cloud-based dashboards without the complexity of PC based web servers and the cost associated with building the necessary infrastructure. Using hardware products from companies like MB Connect Line and Red Lion we are able to expose data to users in a secure method  and at a reasonable price point.

Our mission has always been to keep our customers working efficiently with the highest quality, cost effective, and innovative technologies. With this in mind we see ourselves at Control Point as solution providers and expanding our services to involve innovative approaches to the evolving IoT industry was simply a means of  providing our clients with new solutions. In this new era of internet and Ethernet connectivity there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for the expansion of the “internet of things.” In the meantime, we are honored to have been recognized as a 2017 IoT Innovator and excited to continue to provide new solutions for our industry.

Can I please get someone to service the equipment in my factory?

Does it feel like sometimes you are caught between spending a fortune to get someone on site to maintain and service equipment and not being able to get anyone at all?  There are a host of changes that have occurred over the years in the automation field that have led to this problem.  The good news is there are some modern solutions that can help get you past this and become more in control of your own situation.

In many cases the lack of automation professionals directly employed by the factory has led to outsourcing automation needs.  In some cases, one or a few engineers or technicians with the right capabilities are overrun by the demands of the plant.  In other cases, there are limited automation capabilities and the plant relies on the machine builder or systems integrator when service is required.  The problem is that the integrator or machine builder might be one or more states away.  Worse, they are not waiting on your call, they have other work they are doing.  The result is service seems slow and prices seem high because of the travel requirements.

One potential solution is to plan ahead and establish a remote access plan for your machine builders and integrators.  Remote access can address the cost of travel to sight and, because the travel does not need to be planned, it often means the integrator can look at and address something quickly.  Many customers we work with establish this remote access via corporate VPN (virtual private network) access.  At first this solution usually works okay but it often falls apart for a variety of reasons.  Automatic password changes, accounts closing after a certain period of time, antivirus software mismatches, and inability to connect directly to controllers and HMI’s have all been first hand problems for us over the years.  We much prefer a hardware approach that provides us access to the PLC’s and HMI’s in addition to SCADA computers and other software platforms.

The MB Connect Line Mini is an inexpensive device that connects the automation equipment securely through the plant network so that password protected remote access can be had by integrators and machine builders.  Better still, as the owner of the equipment it is simple to turn off the remote access and turn it on only when you want your suppliers to remote in.  If you want to learn more about how it works contact us or go check out their webpage.  It is the simplest and most secure form of remote access that we have found in the market.

Alarm Notification Software that actually works!

We have been talking to end users, integrators and engineering companies in the Water and WasteWater marketplaces and are hearing a consistent complaint about their alarm notification system. They either have a hardwired alarm box that is limited to a certain number of non-descriptive alarms that can only be phoned out. Or, they have a software based solution that is inflexible, poorly supported and hard to implement. As an alternative, we have been working with a product from Exele called Topview and regularly find more and more capabilities in this software. It has the ability to notify and acknowledge alarms via SMS Text, E-mail and VOIP.  It includes interesting alarm analytics and history, supports redundancy, has a built-in mobile web app, and scales nicely. Data sources might be OPC, SQL or PI – so the industry and applications are very broad. If you are in the market, I would encourage you to check out their product overview.

A firewall inside the plant?

Firewalls are often considered the barrier between the big bad internet and the safe confines of the office network. They can also be looked at with an evil eye because they tend to block some of the traffic we want to pass which makes us wonder if it is blocking the traffic we do not want to pass. Further, what if the “threat” is not on the internet but inside your office as part of an e-mail attachment, imported file, unknowing employee or malicious employee? The answer is not to shut down access to everyone everywhere. One option is to consider a firewall inside the facility, between the automation equipment and the balance of the plant network. Then to configure that firewall so that the traffic you want through makes it and all others are blocked. The mbNETFIX product from MB Connect Line is designed as a firewall for automation. You can tell it to learn the traffic patterns and then you can allow appropriate traffic through the firewall. It does not take an IT professional to make this work, just someone who understands the basics of networks and network addresses. The mbNETFIX can Bridge traffic on the same network (same subnet) so you can leave your existing network infrastructure substantially the same. It can also be a Gateway between two networks (different subnets) if that is your system design. Maybe the network security can be handled by IT and automation engineers.

Why does everyone want remote access to my factory?

Your system integrator or machine builder comes to you and says they would like to be able to access your facility from their office so they can work on the systems they put in for you.  You are thinking, “why don’t they just come to the plant when they need to work on it?”

There was a time when the engineer and service tech was on-site programming and maintaining equipment for their customers.  There was also a time when the factory had all of that capability in-house.  But in many places those times are gone.  As competition has grown and margins have decreased, manufactures need to respond to down equipment more quickly and they may not have all of the expertise in house to do all the troubleshooting required.  Add to that the cost of getting and engineer or tech on site to do work and you see one of the reasons why remote access might make sense.

Remote access is not only for the emergency response needs either.  It has a place in project implementation, system enhancements, and routine system maintenance.  The design of today’s control and data acquisition systems is typically based on an Ethernet backbone which distinguishes it from yesterday’s proprietary communication bus.  While the concerns for security should not be overlooked, the benefit of Ethernet based systems is that they can be worked on remotely.  Do you really want to pay the engineer to travel to your site and pay for their hotel and food?

There is a place for site visits before, during and after projects, upgrades and maintenance.  The face-to-face interaction and first-hand knowledge of the equipment is typically required for a successful implementation.  The work that is done in between those visits, is the work that can benefit from remote access to the factory floor.  The improved response time and cost savings for the plant, added to the lesser travel and preferred work environment of the service engineer or tech are the reasons why everyone wants remote access to your factory.  And maybe you should want them to have it too.

Cybersecurity for Control Systems

I read an interesting article in Plant Engineering today that is worth a read by those of us in the automation industry…….

Hacking oil and gas control systems: Understanding the cyber risk

Cyber attacks are growing in number and intensity over the past decade. Companies in the oil and gas industry are high-profile targets and must take measures to protect themselves from hackers.


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Remote Access – Is it for you?

The short answer is YES.

With the technology that exists in the market today, such as that offered by MB Connect Line, you can have remote access to your customers site or your supplier can have access to the equipment they might have to support for you.

VPN Technology is secure and available, and with the use of a cloud based portal the benefits are extensive for supplier and customer alike.  Suppliers like the idea that they can often troubleshoot their customers problems without putting a tech in a truck or on an airplane.  Additionally, remote access can get the tech visibility sooner so he has a better chance of resolving the issue.  Customers like the lower overall cost (ie. fewer service trips) and the increased uptime afforded them when problems are solved quickly.

So, choose your vendor wisely to ensure that you have an easy to configure but highly functional solution. Give remote access a chance because it will pay you back many times over.

Citect v2015 Integration Partner Update

Many thanks to Stephane Gaudreau and Tim van Wyk for an excellent technical presentation of the new features in Citect 2015 today. We learned about time saving configuration tools including the Equipment Editor (object oriented programming), great new Popup Page tools, plus Project Backup enhancements that allow you to backup your include projects and Project Restore functionality that shows you the project version and allows you to restore the backed up include projects. We also saw .NET programming integrated into Citect to allow a user to login via a fingerprint scanner. The same .NET integration will allow you to send e-mails directly from Citect through your e-mail client.

Citect v2015 also has runtime improvements like speed enhancements in the Alarm Server and Citect running as a Service. SmartGlance (a Wonderware web tool) is a read-only portable client that connects directly to VijeoCitect and works on Microsoft Azure. Great new features that many of my users will be very happy to see.

What are the benefits of automating?

The positive value of automation is not always in making more, faster. Automation can make the workplace safer for employees by carrying the heavy loads required when moving raw materials, parts, or finished good. Reducing the risk of injury with automation benefits employees and employers. Speed and efficiency is another benefit of automation. Taking away the redundant, mind-numbing tasks that can physically and mentally wear employees down over time creates an improvement in psychological well-being in addition to improved physical well-being.

Wind farm switches

We find that there are a lot of switch products on the market that run on either 24VDC power or 115VAC, but what if your system runs at a different voltage. N-Tron has released a series of switches with a High Voltage Option. The units will run on 43-300VDC, satisfying the needs of power, wind farm and railway applications. These units allow you to save the money associated with power conversion and keeps your installed footprint smaller.