Mr. Mackenbach, in which way has the service on electrical and automation systems changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ralf Mackenbach: Even before the pandemic, we had made intensive use of remote support as an option to assist our customers promptly and effectively in their daily production routines. In order to guarantee utmost safety of our customers and employees during these extraordinary times, we decided to expand our remote activities even further. Especially, minor revamps that had originally been planned to be performed on site were increasingly handled remotely. I can’t think of a project where this did not work out fine. At the same time, we have been able to reduce travelling to an absolute minimum.

In concrete terms, how das remote support work?

Helmut Beckmann-Lenneper: Let me give you some examples. A German customer called our 24/7 service hotline one day before Christmas 2020 because there was an issue with a hot strip mill. The rolling of certain strip thicknesses was instable, even leading to production stops. The customer granted our technician remote access to the system. The technician first checked the diagnostics records of the strips concerned. He quickly found that the values measured by one of the position encoders of the screwdown system for the roll gap adjustment were not plausible. As an immediate measure, the encoder was deactivated. Production was resumed and no problem occurred.

During the next regular maintenance stop, the defective encoder was replaced with a new one. All steps of that service mission were documented in our CRM system. This means that other service technicians can now access the case and view the findings. In December 2020, we received another hotline call from a customer in America. His plant had automatically stopped all of sudden (emergency stop). Our technician checked the log files and other available data via remote access. He quickly came to the conclusion that there were communication problems within the internal network systems. He recommended that the customer should replace a network switch – and, indeed, this solved the problem.

Ralf Mackenbach (left) and Helmut Beckmann-Lenneper.

Does this mean that in most cases you use remote support to help customers in emergency situations?

Helmut Beckmann-Lenneper: Oh no, we use the possibility of remote access also for scheduled service measures and during commissionings. Just recently we received a request from a Turkish customer who wanted to have additional sensors installed in its plant. In this case, we planned the necessary expansion of the hardware of the fieldbus system jointly with the customer, the customer installed the new hardware and then our experts integrated the new signals into the automation system via remote access. And now, with the restrictions in connection with the pandemic, we have been implementing even more complex revamps in this way. This has avoided quite some travelling, and we have been able to support our customers in implementing the measures as planned.

What is the focus of the modernizations that you perform with your service team?

Ralf Mackenbach: We are active in both software updates and hardware upgrades of a wide range of different automation systems. We plan modernizations for all types of automation systems in line with the requirements of our customers and with short installation and commissioning times, always with a view to an optimal combination of remote and on-site service.

We are active in both software updates and hardware upgrades of a wide range of different automation systems.

Helmut Beckmann-Lenneper: For 25 years, SMS group has used the modular X-Pact®-ProBAS automation system as standard for the basic automation and the technological controls in rolling mills. We upgrade X-Pact®-ProBAS to the latest hardware generation in one to two days, independent of the year in which the existing system was first commissioned. After completion of such an upgrade, production can be immediately restarted at 100 percent.

Which customers can benefit from the remote service?

Ralf Mackenbach: The use of the 24/7 hotline and the possibility to call on SMS group experts 24/7 for assistance are available free of charge to customers who have concluded a corresponding service agreement. We usually conclude one- to three-year contracts with our customers. These contracts also form the legal basis for the implementation of our remote services. The contracts cover the access rights for on-call assistance and the agreed number of hours for cost-free service activities, and they may even include additional X-Pact® Service modules. Also the conditions for planned and unplanned on-site assignments are defined. Basically, every new plant and equipment that we supply comes complete with the technical features enabling the use of our remote support service. Currently, we have far more than 100 active connections in place worldwide with our customers. Internally, we use the X-Pact® Service portal as early as during the engineering phase, the Plug & Work integration tests and during commissioning. Within the global network of SMS group, both software experts and technologists from our development and engineering departments are available to assist our customers.

X-Pact® Service Portal – our platform for expert diagnostics

What digital tools are available to the X-Pact® Service experts?

Ralf Mackenbach: For many years, SMS group has pursued a digitalization strategy that has seen the successful use of the X-Pact® Service portal during commissionings and in the after-sales service. During the past year, we have enhanced the communication possibilities significantly as well as the digital functionalities of the portal. We now even use AR goggles for the direct exchange of information about the facility with the customer’s specialist personnel per chat function, audio, video or whiteboards securely connected via the X-Pact® Service portal. In addition, a mobile version of the X-Pact® Service portal enables staff at the customer’s facility to send out a service call directly from their smartphones. Further mobile applications are to come soon.

What role does your team play in the implementation of Equipment-as-a-Service projects?

Ralf Mackenbach: Electrical and automation systems and their specified performance play a significant part in Equipment-as-a-Service (EaaS) models. Consequently, also our X-Pact® Service experts get involved here, as our remote service is critical to the successful optimization and the resulting high performance level of production equipment operated as EaaS.