by Tom Kurilovitch, AMS Senior Applications Engineer
As odd as it may sound, I feel blessed to be able to work in Upstate New York. Lots of people comment that there must be something wrong with my head; cold winters, the high taxes, the poor business climate. While these may be true to one degree or another, one can not argue the beauty of the Finger Lakes, or the quality of the establishments along these lakes.
As a hard-working team of engineers we believe in the work hard / play hard adage that seems so popular today. So, when the occasion allows, and we finish at a customer early it is not uncommon to revel in our success at an establishment along a Finger Lake. Case in point, the picture above taken on one such occasion. It was a great day of work and comradery with my co-works, enjoying the late afternoon breeze…Until… The phone rings, and it is a customer with a machine that went down late in the day. This particular customer is in Rochester, approximately one and a half hours away, and I am enjoying a cold brew. Now comes decision time. One cannot go to visit a customer after ending a day with a beverage, being a family man I have stuff with the kids that evening, and I am still over an hour away before I could help them. Meanwhile they are desperate and losing production (MONEY!).
This situation used to keep me up at night, or at least give me pause before ordering a beverage. Thankfully that time is in the past due to modern technology and small, orange box called a Tosibox.
What is a Tosibox? Tosibox is a hardware VPN unit with high level encryption and a Lock/Key security access protocol that ensures only people that have been granted access can gain access to a network. The ‘Lock’ is essentially a router that has a WAN connection for internet access and a 3 port switch for LAN connection that requires 24VDC to power and a convenient DIN rail mounting accessories. If the WAN connection has internet access then it can be found by the associated ‘Keys’. Once a connection has been established then you (the support engineer enjoying a brew) can interface with all devices on the system just like you are sitting at the machine.
The Key is a USB device that has been paired with the Tosibox. The ‘Master’ pairing happens at initial startup of a Lock, defining a Master key. A key can be master to many Tosiboxes or just one, depending on your organizational needs. Once a master Key is created sub keys can be created and maintained from the single Master, so you can define (remotely or locally) who has access and who doesn’t, full control over your system access.
So I plug my key in to my laptop, the application that is installed on the Key will automatically open up, find all of the Locks that have been associated with the Key, and then it is simply a matter of double clicking on the required Lock start a connection, and just like that I am on my machine network. Next I open the required software, go online, and find where the problem is. In this particular case a process alarm condition that we hadn’t seen in the past had occurred and the system could not return tooling. After correcting the problem in the Automation Controller using Online Edits and some quick testing the issue was resolved. In less than 20 minutes my customer was up and running and I was back to enjoying my beer, my co-workers, and that awesome view of the Finger Lakes.
Some questions always come up:
1) How do I guarantee that people with a Key don’t log in when I don’t want them to?
Well, there are a few different ways to control, but my favorite solution is to put the 24VDC supply to the Lock on a relay that can be triggered from a ‘remote access’ button on an HMI. This way the Lock is only on when needed, and off when not required. The safest device is a powered off device.
2) What kind of security does the unit have?
Tosibox has many white papers that outline the security side of the device in better language than my lowly controls engineering skills can muster.
3) What I don’t have internet access at the Finger Lakes establishment?
If you don’t have internet access then you are probably living in the wrong decade, but if the establishment (or wherever you happen to be) does not have WiFi I have had a lot of success using my phones mobile hotspot. You take a bit of a hit on bandwidth, but it works well enough to debug, and I have even downloaded programs and HMI projects over my phone’s hotspot. If you don’t have a signal for your phone then you are unfortunately out of luck.
4) What devices can I talk to?
The Tosibox is a hardware VPN, it provides network access only, no drivers or special setup for your automation devices is typically required. To date at AMS I have communicated with Omron PLC’s and HMI’s, Allen Bradley PLC’s, Cognex inspection systems, Denso robot controllers, and other third party devices testing for customers. Once the connection is established I have not had any issues connecting, the only caveat is downloading gets hairy sometimes if the lag in the connection is too great.
5) What if I have a large machine network or need plant wide access?
The use case explained above is only one possible use for the Tosibox system. Tosibox has many other products that may be discussed in future blogs. The Lock and Key system is expandable to allow easy communications between machines on the same factory floor or across the country. Also, Tosibox offers this technology in Server hardware or Cloud software to provide enterprise solutions for larger systems that can encompass highly secure networks for factory floors coordination, IoT, sales, accounting, inventory, and more on local or corporate wide level.
The Tosibox Lock and Key combination is under $1,000 to start. In a typical service call from Rochester, NY to Buffalo, NY, you would have 3 hours of travel, plus 3 hours on site and expenses. With standard engineering rates in the area around $175 / hour this service call could cost close to $1,000. Using Tosibox technology the call can be reduced to an hour or two, and the cost of the device will paid for in a single service call between labor savings and increased production.
Now that is something to drink to… Cheers.