on August 11th, 2010

Dear Colleague

Although I can hear a few of you muttering... 'obviously a jack of all trades and master of none'; one of  my passions is the study of engineering professionals working and collaborating remotely especially in remote configuration and testing of industrial automation systems. The rapid growth in broadband, the need to reduce travel and accommodation costs as well as reduce green house gases (from travel), makes this a very relevant topic.

As the ITU remark; “It’s good to collaborate remotely without the need to physically travel. Increase productivity, save time and money while reducing your company’s carbon footprint.”

There is a growing demand for remote configuration and testing of systems often performed by teams of engineers collaborating virtually from remote locations. Admittedly, there are technical challenges of remote control and configuration on a real-time basis and there is a heightened risk of security breaches with catastrophic consequences. However the field of remote collaboration and configuration is growing fast.

As engineering professionals we tend to work in teams. There is a new family of tools to assist us in communication, collaboration and co-ordination; without the requirement for physical travel.

The market of remote collaboration can be segmented by price and bandwidth requirements and ranges from (at the low end of bandwidth) email / instant messaging / phone calls / audio conferencing / web-casting / web conferencing / video conferencing and the big one – Telepresence. Web conferencing is a tool that offers particularly useful features at an affordable cost.

Remote collaboration is not only just about technology but has three main functionalities:

  • Communication – the ability to exchange information between participants
  • Co-ordination – the ability to coordinate tasks among the geographically scattered team
  • Collaboration – the ability to achieve team goals.

Typical tools range from Acrobat Connect, Gotomeeting, Livemeeting, Electromeet and webex. These allow typical web conferencing at an affordable cost. The main methods of delivery of web conferencing are typically using slides, audio, text chat, video streaming, use of a whiteboard, sharing of programs, file transfers and web touring.

In addition, the feature of simultaneously performing remote configuration and testing of a remote site is an added benefit in some of them and this is the area that really interests me with our research and work.

The benefits of collaboration and testing include:

  • Convenience
  • Easy to use
  • Expertise available to more sites
  • Higher availability of equipment
  • Access to specialized equipment
  • No geolgraphical barriers
  • Minimization of travel and accommodation costs – lower greenhouse gases
  • Considerably lower costs

How can you take advantage of these tools?

1. Think seriously about using remote collaboration, testing and configuration for your next project
2. If you have access to broadband on your remote sites, this makes the decision easier
3. Your younger staff would be familiar and comfortable with these tools
4. Pay attention to security of your connections
5. Training is required to ensure everyone is skilled at using these tools

Naturally, not everyone is not going to ‘go 100%’ to remote collaboration. Agreements and contracts often need personal touch. Informal discussions during tea breaks are difficult to replicate through the sometimes clinical internet. And naturally, critical tests and interfacing to equipment where an expert is required physically on the spot are still essential. And as we all know, in many locations internet connections are not possible, impossibly slow or tenuous.

On the topic of remote control, John Alejandro King made the joking remark which could be one day true:

If you're not scared or angry at the thought of a human brain being controlled remotely, then it could be this prototype of mine is finally starting to work.

Yours in engineering learning


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