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REMOTE DIAGNOSTICS -- Service With a Smile

November 2005
BY MARK SMITH

Technology Editor

Automation usually has the effect of at once making equipment simpler to operate, but more complex to fix when a problem arises. Just as driveway car repairs have become a thing of the past for most owners, the response to any glitch on today's printing equipment is apt to be arranging for a service call rather than reaching for a wrench.

The answer, of course, is to bring more technology to bear. As heavy iron has integrated silicon components, the potential has grown for capturing even minute operating parameters by tapping into the various electronic controls, IC chips and servo motors. Add Internet connectivity to the mix and it becomes possible for a technician to do a detailed assessment of a system without having to come near the plant.

Welcome to the age of remote diagnostics.

Agfa may have been the first to introduce the concept to this market, since the Avantra imagesetters it rolled out in the mid-1990s featured a built-in modem to enable remote monitoring and servicing. A central feature of the system was the ability to contact a designated staff person if the need for

operator intervention arose during unattended operation overnight.

The current generation of remote diagnostic systems are designed to enable proactive equipment servicing and support. Their purpose is not to provide monitoring of business-related parameters, such as job run times, operator performance, throughput, capacity utilization, etc. A common theme in the pitches from vendors is that printers simply can't afford to have equipment be down in today's competitive environment.

Any new idea is bound to meet some resistance, but this one has the added burden of raising the specter of George Orwell's "Big Brother" or HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey" movie fame. Added to that are the warnings sounded about viruses, firewall integrity and privacy in the wired age.

Remote diagnostic capabilities have followed the course of the overall digital revolution in printing, moving from prepress to presses (offset and digital), and now on to postpress equipment. Information can be pulled from the electronics and controls already being incorporated into modern devices, so installation of additional sensors isn't a requirement. However, a PC may be needed to run the diagnostic routines on a scheduled basis and before calling the service center when a problem arises.

Faster, more cost-effective equipment servicing is an obvious, direct benefit of the technology. It also enables vendors to be proactive in maintaining hardware by using real-time monitoring and a database of system performance stats to identify problems in the making before they impact performance. Software upgrades to a machine's control systems can be handled remotely and automatically.

Along with providing assistance to equipment operators when there's a problem, this capability can be used for remote operator training on an ongoing basis. Adding a Web-cam to the system can further enhance the level of interaction between the operator and technician.

The ultimate extension of the technology is to have a system automatically request a service call and order the necessary parts so they are on-site when the technician arrives. Which leads into the issues of costs and control.

Remote diagnostic capabilities typically are included as part of a service contract, but may also be offered separately on a subscription basis. The nature of individual vendor agreements determines the level of functionality offered. A lower cost service contract, for example, may implement more passive monitoring rather than enable the system to initiate actions such as ordering parts.

Some vendors elect to give customers a choice by offering service tiers at different price points. A top level that covers all costs makes it practical to offer automated service scheduling and parts ordering.

Printers can also benefit indirectly or less immediately from broader adoption of the technology. It creates a pool of knowledge that a vendor can use in supporting its entire installed base of current equipment, as well as in designing future systems.

Using the Internet as the conduit enables manufacturers to leverage their service and support resources on a global basis for maximum efficacy. Technicians can be made available 24/7 for online consultation by handing off responsibility to the next service region as the sun sets.

Troubling lapses and breaches of Internet security have made it a hot topic even beyond the walls of IT departments. While every business needs to secure its network, and remote diagnostic systems are designed to maintain the integrity of those measures, a printing company is unlikely to be high on the list of targets for recreational hackers or the more worrisome identity stealers. Handling sensitive jobs shouldn't be any more of a concern because diagnostics systems only need access to machine data.

Implementing remote diagnostics can require extending Internet access lines to new areas of the plant. WiFi could simplify the task, with suitable security measures.

Safety can also be a consideration, depending on the level of remote control supported by the system. One option is to not enable the technician to check any functions that require activating components that could pose a danger to plant personnel. The other solution is for the system to prompt an on-site operator to take the desired action so all safety procedures and tag out/lock out requirements can be followed.

All About the Brand

Branding is one option vendors may use to help build awareness of this capability, including examples such as Enovation Taskero, MAN Roland ProServ Virtual and Creo (Kodak) ServiceWire. The underpinnings, though, are likely to be provided by a third-party software company, a fact that Agfa, for one, freely acknowledges by referring to its system as Questra-based IntellSyst.

Questra Corp., in Redwood City, CA, and Axeda Systems, in Mansfield, MA, are two device management software companies that have a strong presence in the graphic arts market. They recently announced settling a patent dispute that had escalated into dueling patent infringement suits.

"We chose this technology (Questra) because it is used by leading manufacturers of medical and diagnostic equipment to provide remote service and monitoring at hospitals, clinics and laboratories all over the world," says Stan Zientarski, Agfa's vice president of North America Global Services. "The medical industry is highly regulated and extremely sensitive with regards to security and patient privacy, so we are confident that this technology can satisfy our customers' security requirements."

Heidelberg, which also works with Questra, has gone to the added step of having its Web-based Remote Service solution certified by an independent security auditor in Germany, reports Richard Mack, director, systemservice development. Its implementation requires that the customer initiate a remote service session and the on-site operator remains in control at all times, Mack says.

Axeda also has a background in the medical instruments segment, among others. It established a foothold in the graphic arts arena by working with vendors of digital printing systems, with Kodak Versamark and Xeikon being early adopters.
 

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