Six steps for supporting an automation system

Learning Objectives

  • Like coding, troubleshooting is a unique and special set of skills, and each person may have a slightly different approach to resolving issues.
  • A well-built system will provide evidence of what is happening in the event something is not working properly.
  • Usually, it’s not going to be possible to restart servers in a manufacturing system without taking down other, still functional parts.
  • It’s always good practice to document the issue—both for the customer’s benefit and to provide insight to the support team.

Every automation system eventually develops a situation requiring advanced engineering support. This type of break-fix support may be due to power outages, server maintenance, operator error, etc. But no matter what the root issue turns out to be, sooner or later, every system will need it.

Like coding, troubleshooting is a unique and special set of skills, and each person may have a slightly different approach to resolving issues. When in a break-fix situation, following this six-step procedure can not only fix the problem but also help determine the root cause of the issue.

Step 1: Ask questions

Always begin by discussing the symptoms of the issue with the person reporting it. If you think about it, how can you solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is? Asking the right questions in this first phase of the support process is vital to enabling a successful resolution.

Step 2: Replicate the issue

Sometimes the information you’ve gathered in the first step may not quite paint the full picture of the situation. Replicating the issue often provides insight into what the user is actually reporting. It can confirm symptoms, and reveal others not reported.

Step 3: Check the log files

A well-built system will provide evidence of what is happening in the event something is not working properly. If you’re lucky, error messages will provide the context for understanding the actual problem. Even if the system hasn’t generated error messages, the system logs may provide details regarding behind-the-scenes issues in a script or database transaction. Analyzing these messages often can reveal the issue at hand.

Step 4: Trace backwards

Start at the point in the system where the issue has been reported and trace backwards. For example, assume a user is experiencing an issue on a specific application screen. Begin with drilling down into the specific elements of the screen that are not working—for example, a button. Then dig into the code/function behind the button to see how it’s supposed to work. Perhaps the button triggers a script that queries a database for data, but that data isn’t displaying on the screen. Tracing through these individual elements/functions often can help understand where in the process the malfunction occurs.

Step 5: Restart/redeploy the system

Usually, it’s not going to be possible to restart servers in a manufacturing system without taking down other, still functional parts. However, it is amazing how often “turning it off and on again” will fix a system when some underlying aspect gets out of sync.

Step 6: Document the findings

It’s always good practice to document the issue—both for the customer’s benefit and to provide insight to the support team. One of the main benefits of documentation in a support situation is to provide guidance should the same situation reoccur. You don’t want to spend valuable time trying to reanalyze an issue if you don’t have to. 

Ed Miller is a project engineer at Avanceon, a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Jack Smith, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and technology, jsmith@cfemedia.com.

MORE ANSWERS

Keywords: system integration; automation support

Like coding, troubleshooting is a unique and special set of skills, and each person may have a slightly different approach to resolving issues.

A well-built system will provide evidence of what is happening in the event something is not working properly.

Usually, it’s not going to be possible to restart servers in a manufacturing system without taking down other, still functional parts.

It’s always good practice to document the issue—both for the customer’s benefit and to provide insight to the support team.

Consider this

Can following this six-step procedure help your facility fix problems and determine root causes of automation-related issues?

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