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The Dangers of Mixing Automation and EBay

 

“Rockwell Automation Software Pirated and Sold on-line” and “Four Arrested for Pirating Millions of Dollars in Rockwell Software” rang in headlines throughout the world last week.  Automation Software Piracy represents the tip of the iceberg.  This equates to a major ethical breakdown for many companies.  Not only is this stealing, it could easily turn into murder!  This software was not being used to create cute new websites for the entertainment of people at home nor was it used by kids in their parent’s basement to play games.  It controls automated machines. 

 

This translates to – software used to control machines that could easily maim or kill.  Some unsuspecting worker betting his life on software that was purchased from a complete stranger over the internet doesn’t seem to smart to me.  With estimates that a single wave of software attacks costing business $80 Billion (yes, with a B), how can anyone possibly say there is no risk involved?

 

Now let’s explore another piece of the pie.  I can think of at least a half dozen wholesale distributors of Automation Equipment who tell me they have experienced employee theft based on sales over the internet.  Now we have a person whose life depends on stolen property.  Further, there are other legal ramifications regarding a company receiving stolen property – whether knowingly or not.  Just imagine the President of your company sitting in front of a jury saying, “Well your honor we did buy it from a complete stranger on Ebay, but they had a 99% positive feedback report.”

 

And finally, suppose everything is on the up and up.  You are buying used equipment on-line.  The legal ownership issue is safely behind you.  But there are other hazards.  Automation Equipment consists of complex technologies in an industrial container.  The electronics contained within each of these devices contain both hardware and software (in the form of firmware). 

 

When used equipment is purchased, there is no real way to determine if the product has been damaged by external environmental issues or through some kind of inappropriate repair.  Environmental damage can be caused by electrical surges, lightning strikes, high temperature operation or exposure to moisture.  Inappropriate repair typically can be found where a technician without proper equipment replaces a faulty component – the days of soldering iron and trips to Radio Shack are over.

 

Further issues arise when a malicious person decides to install a virus or bug into the on board firmware.  Again – people’s lives and limbs depend on proper installation.  With the growing use of viruses and maleware sweeping our country – there may be someone out there thinking of playing a sick joke on you or your company.

 

What should I do if I have purchased Industrial Software or Hardware in the past?

 

  1. If it operates in known high risk environment, immediately remove it from service.  Examples of high risk environments might be:
    • Hands-in-die punch press
    • Metal forming and feeding applications
    • High speed material handling equipment
    • Curing or convection ovens
    • Machines with constant human intervention
  2. Send the equipment in question through the “refurbish or repair” loop of the original equipment manufacture.  Ask for specific feedback on the following issues:
    • Point of Sale origin – many of these components are serial numbered and tracked by the original manufacture
    • Firmware revision number and any know firmware issues – often certain levels of firmware possess know abnormalities or incompatibilities.  These lead to safety issues.
  3. Establish a company policy which requires a statement of origin from any systems integration organizations, special machine builders, OEM equipment suppliers or others working in your facility.
  4. Ask all past suppliers to sign a document stating that 100% of the equipment provided was purchased new through authorized dealers, distributors, VAR’s or directly from the manufacturer.  If they do not or will not comply, I would investigate the equipment they have provided.

 

I find myself stuck with some “undocumented” automation product, is there a use for it?

I am a businessman.  I understand profit and loss.  It is hard to consider throwing what could be thousands of dollars of equipment into the dumpster.  To some, EBay represents an outlet for recouping dollars.  Is there an alternative?  Here are some potential uses for this equipment:

  • Donate it to a college or technical institute for use training future engineers and technicians.
  • Use it internally for system prove-out.
  • Use decommissioned racks as storage for spare modules.

 

Conclusions

Purchasing automation equipment without a full understanding of its pedigree and past is dangerous stuff.  If you know of equipment in service that comes from an unknown source, it is important that you take immediate action.  Many believe that because these devices have operated successfully for several months, the danger period is over.  I encourage you to error on the side of safety and legality.

 

Frank Hurtte of River Heights Consulting is a speaker, author, consultant and coach to the Distributors and Manufacturers of Automation Equipment.  He can be reached at 563-514-1104 or via the River Heights Consulting Website, www.riverheightsconsulting.com

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