This post was authored by Kirk Norris, who retired from his position as senior vice president of strategic manufacturing solutions at MAVERICK Technologies, a Rockwell Automation company.

Manufacturing firms have used remote management for automation support tasks for quite a while and for a variety of reasons. But due to recent changes in technology and competitive pressure remote support is now recognized as a best practice to creating strategic advantages by lowering costs and improving efficiency.

On the technology front, remote management is easier than ever to safely implement due to the proliferation of open systems, standard protocols and high-speed broadband connections. In terms of strategy, many manufacturers are refocusing their efforts on core activities such as uptime, safety and quality, and relying out outsourced off-site assistance for routine and periodic ICS sustain and support functions. These functions can be grouped into five categories:

  • 24/7 incident management
  • Backup and restore
  • Software version and patch management
  • Real-time monitoring
  • Online editing

Many companies find proper management of these activities in-house difficult as resources are stretched thin. This often results in these periodic preventative measures left incomplete or in extreme cases ignored. Even when manufacturers have the required expertise in-house these experts may not be available when needed. Companies in this situation are coming to realize that outsourcing some or all of these activities to a trusted automation solutions provider is a more cost-effective solution freeing in-house resource to focus on more value added activities.

Of course this is not a “one-size-fits-all” strategy and manufactures need to carefully consider what makes sense given their specific circumstances.

A survey conducted at MAVERICK Technologies showed a clear correlation between the use of remote ICS support services and leaner internal ICS support staffing. While the survey could not determine if these companies ran more efficiently I think one can safely assume their internal resource expertise is more focused and aligned with the unique and critical needs of the business.

The majority of survey responders indicated they use off-site automation and IT service providers, either as a stand-alone solution or in combination with on-site staff. Assuming the remaining responders already have an existing working internal plan (rather than take the “do nothing” alternative”), remote management can often improve these plans, as the costs of these off-site services are typically greatly exceeded by benefits. Let’s face it, your best technical resources are expensive and they’re best utilized working on “new problems” not reoccurring break fix issues and repetitive preventive maintenance tasks.

What’s your view on the role of internal vs. external automation support resources? I would appreciated hearing about any successes or failures you have to share related to outsourcing ICS support functions.

About the Author
Kirk Norris, now retired, had leadership responsibility for MAVERICK’s operational consulting business. He joined MAVERICK after a long career at Anheuser-Busch InBev, where he held several corporate and plant positions including brewmaster and plant manager. Kirk served as president of the Anheuser-Busch Packaging Group, a vertically integrated packaging materials manufacturing subsidiary.

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