Improve operations with software asset management

June 23, 2021
Asset management systems connect operational technology data and configurations with information technology applications, reducing downtime and delivering many other operational advantages.

End users involved in the engineering, operation or maintenance functions at manufacturing companies are likely familiar with the term asset management system (AMS), and they know that an AMS can be integrated with their industrial control systems to help them monitor and maintain automation equipment. A properly implemented AMS assists with keeping devices, equipment and systems up and running, reducing plant downtime and cutting maintenance costs.

An AMS is not essential for the underlying automation system, but it coordinates and complements the automation and helps users manage the hardware and software automation assets.

Because a software AMS is usually only installed once at a site and must interoperate with many types of existing systems, end users may need assistance with implementation. This article describes how a software AMS can be implemented to provide better use of available resources, improve operations and enhance operational security.

A quest for better coordination

Industrial automation utilizes dozens and even hundreds of smart machines and devices that are either configured or programmed — such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMIs), variable frequency drives (VFDs), robots, managed switches, smart instruments and more. These devices are often connected using Ethernet networking, either directly or via PLCs. Also called automation assets, these devices are critical for operation.

Sometimes, things happen to these assets that disrupt operations, and quick recovery is important to reduce downtime and product loss. Some of the most common problems include: 

  • Operators change multiple machine parameter values during the week but do not log the changes.
  • Different operators cannot recall the best settings when recovering after a process upset.
  • Troubleshooting modifications made in the programming over a weekend get a machine running, but it was done poorly, and nobody knows what was done or has access to the original code version.
  • Managing authorizations and privilege settings across the workforce to assign access and restrictions across the myriad assets is cumbersome.
  • Devices need reconfiguration after repair or replacement, but the backup system was not automated, and the last good configuration information is not identified.
  • Performing and documenting instrument calibrations is crucial for many companies, especially for regulated industries and safety considerations, but it is not performed in a systematic manner.

There is a constant challenge of doing more with less, and an AMS can solve these problems and assist with much more.

Bringing order to manufacturing assets

Because an AMS is a multipurpose tool, it provides the following capabilities to manage automation assets:

  • Track or audit changes to all operating settings: Whenever a user changes a parameter value or a set point in a PLC, for example, that event is automatically captured in a centralized audit log, showing the device, user, time and action taken.
  • Archive critical files and documents: An electronic repository with version control is maintained for configuration files, program files, recovery plans, Word and Excel files, CAD drawings and PDF manuals. When edits are made to any of these resources, a version history tracks the username and the edit date. The most recent revision is saved, and the user sets the number of backup versions that are kept. Users can retrieve these critical files and documents as needed.
  • Centralize security across assets: Administrators centrally manage each user’s specific privileges — based on their responsibilities and need for access — for viewing or modifying each device in the plant and for resources stored in the archive. For example, maintenance personnel could be authorized to obtain a configuration file to restore a machine, but perhaps only engineering team members would be permitted to actually edit the file.
  • Automate disaster recovery: Automatic backups of configuration files are easily scheduled and then compared to each device’s master file. When newly backed-up software is different, any revised files are stored, an event is registered in the database, and the detected differences are assembled into a report, which may be emailed to specific users. In the event of an incident, authorized users can choose to update the master file or revert to a previous version as needed.
  • Incorporate instrument calibration: Some AMS systems offer native or plug-in functionality for documenting instrument calibrations, providing the necessary audit trail in a convenient electronic format. This is especially useful for validated systems in the food, beverage and pharma industries.

These automated tasks provide a consistent system-wide approach, relieving automation engineers from burdensome chores and freeing them to focus on more productive activities.

Other advanced functions are possible with an AMS, such as scanning the operations network for new assets and tracking and updating software packages. Security scans can be run across multiple devices, and assets can even be tracked from a mobile device.

Products and projects

Successful AMS implementation requires a balance of products and skills to bridge operational technology (OT) hardware and protocols with information technology (IT) systems. Matrix Technologies, a multi-discipline engineering firm headquartered in Ohio, has executed many of these projects for multiple industries using AMS software focused on automation systems from various vendors based on client needs and existing software stacks.

One of the leading industrial automation AMS packages is Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk Asset Centre, part of their large portfolio of OT-centric software. Other companies such as Schneider, Siemens, and MDT Software offer similar solutions.

The best software to use in each application depends on the predominant makes and models of target devices at the end user site and the specific required functionalities. Following are a few example applications that Matrix has developed and deployed for their end user clients.

Food manufacturer controls assets

A food manufacturer experienced excessive downtime because unauthorized personnel were making online changes to the controllers. Matrix implemented FactoryTalk Asset Centre to manage access and provide disaster recovery with automatic backups. These measures reduced unplanned downtime events by at least 7% and reduced waste product by 10%. As a bonus, management received better audit reports and established an archived repository that helped them develop a more formal change management process.

Dairy producer extended equipment life

A dairy producer used limited manual data collection means and had significant automation hardware assets near end of life. Matrix implemented AMS as a single tool to manage versioning and tracking of automation asset information, combined with viewing and reporting tools. This extensive raw data was converted into actionable information, eliminating the need for investment in new equipment. Annual worker effort was reduced by 70% for system backup and version control, and more than 500 hours of manual data collection per year were avoided.

Chemical manufacturer automates versioning

A chemical manufacturer had numerous plants, each with over 100 controllers per site, equipment from multiple OEMs and over 20 on-site engineers. They had several multi-year projects and had to track software versioning of each device through commissioning and production. Matrix implemented an AMS solution, eliminating the manual backup process and freeing up their technical resources to work on higher level tasks. The resulting audit trail clearly identified non-authorized changes.

Pharmaceutical manufacturer leverages electronic records

A pharmaceutical manufacturer already using FactoryTalk Asset Centre wanted to incorporate Rockwell’s Calibration Management Agent into this AMS. By implementing this functionality, the plant was able to reduce the time required to keeping the instrumentation validated by about 20%. Just moving from paper to electronic records represented a big improvement, while reports documenting the GMP status of each instrument offered significant advantages during audits.

Water/wastewater operator creates actionable reports

A water/wastewater site needed to produce reliable operations reports, while reducing the engineering effort needed to upgrade control systems. By implementing an AMS, Matrix helped the site manage control system changes, track user actions and provide configuration for equipment from different manufacturers. Complementary with this work, Matrix installed a historian to collect data from remote stations and provided an easy-to-use machine interface with an alarm and events system. The resulting reports enabled operators to visualize and act on data presented in web-based dashboards to easily and quickly identify critical events and maximize operational efficiency.

AMS improves operations

In each of the preceding examples, AMS software implementations helped end users monitor, maintain and document their systems so they could optimize many aspects of operation. An effective AMS merges OT-sourced data and configuration information and securely delivers this information using IT technologies. When end users partner with an experienced firm like Matrix for implementing a plant-wide AMS, they benefit from an installation created by automation experts with deep experience in many industries and platforms.

Victor Bertorelli is a technical consultant in the Matrix Technologies industrial systems division. Bertorelli has an extensive industrial automation background, and he is responsible for conceptualizing and implementing control systems based on industry standards like ISA-88, ISA-95, and PackML. He graduated from Forced Armed Technology Institute with an electronic engineer degree and the Universidad Central de Venezuela with a Production Management Program Certification.

Matrix Technologies