Courtesy Sonny’s Direct
Montage of  AutomationDirect StrideLinx VPN router and Sonny’s Smart Motor Control Center

Cleaning up Your Automated Processes

Jan. 19, 2023
A car wash enterprise waxes about how connected systems drive remote support and updates.

While plenty of people recognize the heavy investment in automated systems at modern factories and processing plants, it is easy to overlook the automated systems we interact with on a regular basis. Elevators, traffic lights, utility systems and even automated car washes operate with near-perfect consistency and reliability, safely helping the general public worldwide. But how, and by who, are all these automated systems supported? Automation is a widely distributed asset that requires a lot of talent, along with provisions to connect technicians with the equipment.

A modern express car wash lately is much more than just nozzles squirting water. These systems include automated equipment, sensors, and other devices needed to wash cars efficiently and safely, while minimizing water and chemical usage. And while there still is on-site labor, there also is off-site technical support and remote monitoring, all of which are required and equally important.

Sonny’s The CarWash Factory provides ongoing support, management and system updates for their customers, with more than 700 systems throughout the United States and abroad. Remote connectivity, integrating a virtual private network (VPN) router and an IIoT cloud-based platform, is necessary for supporting their clients and providing timely operational, warning and diagnostic information so the car wash systems stay online and operate at peak efficiency.

A Self-contained Car Wash Factory

A modern express car wash system is much like a small self-contained automated factory. There are many unique subsystems, and most interact.

  • Pay station: Allows customers to select wash options and pay via debit and credit cards
  • License plate recognition: Identifies customers with monthly subscriptions
  • Automation: Uses PLCs and HMIs to control and visualize car handling equipment, perform water and chemical management/filtering/pumping/spraying, operate brushes and blowers, and much more
  • Motor controls: Sonny’s smart motor control centers, motor starters and variable frequency drives (VFDs) provide the high-performance control required to move vehicles and wash equipment at the proper speeds (Fig. 1)

Each of these subsystems involves unique controllers and communication technologies which must be integrated and coordinated with each other. Overall operation needs to be energy and resource efficient, and environmental friendliness is a key concern.

Remote support is crucial because most car wash system owners and operators have limited technical staff on-site, and owners tend to operate sites in more than one geographical region. Car wash elements such as chemicals are depleted at random times, while commodities such as brushes require periodic replacement. The system also must alert the owner or operator about other impending or immediate issues.

The field portion of industrial automation systems utilize modern IIoT platforms to seamlessly bridge OT with IT to provide the required connectivity and other functionality.

For the Sonny’s team, secure remote connectivity is required to ensure that credentialed owner personnel and team members can access any car wash system for:

  • Real-time monitoring
  • Warnings and alerts via text and/or email
  • Data gathering for historical logging and future analysis
  • Program and configuration upload/download for continuous internal engineering and tech support insights

The program uploading/downloading capability was of key interest for the Sonny’s team. Many equipment vendors develop and deploy standardized automation programs and configurations to maintain consistency and provide the option to enable and disable options as needed.  Sonny’s takes an additional step by making the configurations much more like mobile device applications with periodic system updates pushed out to continually improve operations. Much like getting a car washed at least every month, the company relies on robust connectivity to periodically perform the ongoing software maintenance.

Clean Connectivity

To support all these requirements, Sonny’s initially selected a remote access solution using commercially available devices. The chosen technology was complex to implement, and it required significant labor for configuration and support. More troubling, the technology was discovered to be unreliable in service, as remote sites would often go offline. This simply was not an industrial-grade answer, so a better solution was needed.

During the search for a clean connectivity solution, the company evaluated the AutomationDirect StrideLinx VPN router and associated StrideLinx cloud service to implement the required secure remote access and visualization (Fig. 2). The team began by testing this arrangement at two sites. An “a-ha” moment was experienced within minutes of the first site going online, not only because the setup was exceedingly simple, but because the site remained reliably connected.

Prior to the trial rollout, the team discovered the documentation, online videos and support to be complete and helpful. The VPN router connected to the cloud using an available internet connection—such as with gigabit wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi using an IT-friendly outgoing connection—or it could use 4G LTE, making it flexible for use at any site around the globe.

The router is packaged in an industrial-grade form factor and includes a 5-port gigabit switch, so most installations do not require any other networking hardware.

The IIoT platform’s VPN servers are located worldwide for performance and resilience, and a variety of service plans and additional cloud services are available (Fig. 3). There are even mobile apps for iOS and Android devices.

The cloud service provides sufficient capability and flexibility to deliver the information needed for many sites and customers. Cloud administration lets the team configure systems from anywhere using a web browser, and with groups and permission credentials available to enable the proper organization and security among many clients. Advanced user management capability allows Sonny’s and their customers to set specific admin rights for each user. Security uses proven encryption standards like TLS 1.2, and the solution is ISO27001:2013 certified to ensure a secure data link between field-located OT devices and the cloud.

The complete IIoT solution allows quick and easy access to HMIs and PLCs, via VNC or web servers, from within the platform with a provided direct link to each device. This gives Sonny’s the ability to monitor or control machine status from the HMI on a PC or smartphone. Sonny’s may take advantage of future capabilities such as data logging and more IIoT platform customization.

The automated car wash systems are configured to send text messages and emails when issues or alarms are detected, supporting fast notification and resolution. Much of the remote connectivity capability focuses on enabling Sonny’s to support their clients and some aspects are made available to customers who request it so they can address certain issues internally.

Driving Business Forward

As it is for any design, operations or system manager in manufacturing, maximizing uptime and minimizing customer issues are prime objectives for the Sonny’s team. The industrial IIoT remote connectivity solution now in place enables the team to provide responsive support for Sonny’s customers, and it has proven completely reliable under a wide variety of field conditions. Like a car proceeding steadfastly through a wash tunnel, the team is moving forward to equip all new wash systems (and to retrofit existing systems) with this VPN router and cloud-based technology.

Aulio Gil is an electrical engineer at Sonny’s The CarWash Factory.

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