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Confronting the Pandemic: How Digitization Helps Sustain Our Basic Needs in Life

Dec 23, 2020
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Digitization has been on the rise for years and has been further fueled by the recent coronavirus pandemic, as people are being forced to embrace a more digital life (online shopping, remote work and classes). However, the ability to provide basic life necessities relies on the constant supply and production of materials and timely delivery. During the early stages of the pandemic, people around the world began stockpiling livelihood products out of fear of shortages, as the manufacturing industry experienced a diminished labor force and supply chain disruptions. Therefore, as people were homebound, factories all over the world underwent a digital transformation at an unprecedented speed to adapt to a new reality.

The pandemic further complicated the situation for manufacturers

At the start of 2020, under the shadow of COVID-19, people around the world scurried to clear supermarket shelves of necessary supplies such as flour, canned foods, and cooking oil. That, on top of the strict export bans imposed by governments, created tremendous pressure on manufacturers, challenging their ability to achieve a healthy supply-demand balance, maintain safety stocks, and keep production ongoing. The situation was particularly tough for food manufacturers who for long relied on support from overseas technical experts to maintain their operations. With business trips curtailed, where would they find engineers to calibrate and maintain the production equipment?

Besides the food industry, the pandemic also forced the precision component and semiconductor manufacturing sectors to rethink their working models. To protect sensitive information, the manufacturing industry has traditionally leveraged closed networks and shied away from interconnected devices to minimize security risks. However, this means most of their production equipment requires on-site calibration and servicing by specialized field technicians sent by the equipment vendors. This model is costly and inefficient, to say the least. It can easily take at least two days from when the client requests support to the engineers arriving on-site. What’s more, factories often have to carry the travel expenses of these engineers, in addition to the already staggering downtime-related costs. 

Is remote maintenance the answer? What about cybersecurity?

Although equipment failures can happen for a myriad of different reasons, more than half of them can be fixed remotely. Only a handful of more complicated issues require on-site inspection and maintenance by field personnel. If engineers could access the equipment and troubleshoot the issues remotely, maintenance costs of factories would drop dramatically. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote maintenance has become an increasingly attractive solution for many enterprises, prompting equipment vendors to step up their game by providing remote support services.

Although the concept of remote maintenance sounds great in theory, most factory owners are still hesitant to embrace this technology. The reason for that is not due to high initial costs, because in many cases, a few very low-cost equipment upgrades are enough. The real concern is cybersecurity. More specifically, factory owners want to shield their network from any external cybersecurity threats. For engineers to be able to provide remote support, factory owners would have to expose their equipment to an external network. Without proper cybersecurity, one of two likely scenarios may happen: 1) Confidential production parameters and data are stolen during the external network transmission; 2) Hackers paralyze factory operations through viruses or malicious programs, causing the production process to fall into chaos. Both cases could result in serious damage and losses to factory owners.

Industrial cybersecurity is advancing and is a must for any network

Take for example YNY Technology, the 4th highest-growth company in Malaysia. Their main business focuses on digitizing manufacturing facilities, such as MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) and CMMS (Computerized Maintenance Management Systems). With customers all around the world, the technical staff needs to provide long-term support for maintenance across different countries and time zones. Long before the pandemic, YNY already recognized the value remote services can offer to customers and has been aggressively promoting it as a potential solution. “The biggest roadblock was customers’ concerns about cybersecurity,” according to Jeffery Wong, senior business unit manager of YNY Technology.

Traditionally, remote maintenance is done through software, such as remote desktop connections (RDC) and virtual private networks (VPN), both of which have their flaws. For instance, in the RDC-based model, if the whitelist permissions have not been set properly, bad actors may access all the information of the equipment connected to the compromised network, including sensitive production data. Furthermore, besides basic IP settings, remote connections require IT resources to manage the planning and maintenance of the entire network segment for optimal security. Most factories, however, do not have dedicated IT personnel, and most engineers in manufacturing units are not trained to handle information security.

More than a tool, digital technology augments our lives

After the coronavirus outbreak, remote maintenance became a lifeline for the manufacturing industry. Manufacturing firms and their equipment providers alike have been seeking ways to remove the barriers created by the pandemic. For example, some vendors leverage mixed reality (MR) technology to deliver remote installation and maintenance services. YNY understood the convenience remote maintenance for manufacturing could offer its customers very early on, allowing customers to focus on other opportunities or problems brought about by the pandemic.

For example, one of YNY’s customers in Kenya is a producer of edible oils, which is a vital commodity in the region. Kenya relies heavily on imported edible oils, but saw most oil imports crippled due to the pandemic. This posed a huge problem as Kenya could only rely on local supply. This put a great deal of pressure on domestic edible oil manufacturers, such as YNY’s customer. At the same time, this situation presented the local manufacturer with a unique opportunity for growth and development. However, this also makes sustainable, long-term maintenance and support a key concern for their operations. In this case, YNY adopted Moxa Remote Connect (MRC), a software-hardware integrated cloud-based maintenance solution, to provide remote maintenance services with robust security and accessible features.

MRC gives users real-time access to machine calibration and maintenance services, especially suitable for special situations such as when there is insufficient personnel to provide prompt and secure support. MRC offers an answer for companies that require remote maintenance, but worry about security. The MRC architecture provides many advantages such as encrypted VPN technology, which resolves the long-time conflict between exposure to the Internet and the need for strong cybersecurity. For YNY’s customer, the plug-and-play features allowed on-site staff and remote engineers to use the solution with ease, without needing any VPN expertise. Moreover, MRC reduced the burden on the IT engineers, as the robust embedded firewall with whitelist control ensured a safe environment without disrupting the network. To simplify remote servicing even further, engineers could easily connect to multiple field devices simultaneously via a virtual IP mapping scheme. Previously, where it would take more than two days just to fly in overseas engineers, it now barely takes two hours to solve on-site problems, demonstrating how remote maintenance easily overcomes the geographical limitations of traditional support services. Along with providing solid cybersecurity protection, MRC allowed this edible oil producer to maintain stable production of a vital commodity in these challenging times.

There are two sides to industrial digitization. If done right, it can promote a higher quality of life and innovate established working models like in the case of the Kenyan edible oil manufacturer. However, when handled without proper thought or consideration, it can also pose a risk, for example to security. However, by focusing on making cybersecurity an inseparable layer of digitization, it can enhance the way we work and live with a sense of security.

For more information, visit our Microsite to learn how Moxa Remote Connect supports to keep the business running in an effortless and secure way.

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