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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.
 

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