Practical considerations for IIoT applications, part 1

August 29, 2016 OpenSystems Media

The term Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is creating a lot of buzz in the media and around company offices these days. I won’t spend any time explaining what IIoT is, as there are plenty of sources on the internet already doing that. Instead, I want to go over practical considerations before an IIoT implementation can even begin.

As an IIoT user, the first thing to determine would be what the IIoT application goals are. It is important to think about why the project is being created. You should not implement an IIoT application just because a competitor is. Rather, identify an area that could be made safer, more efficient, or cost-effective. I like to think in terms of pain points – things that, if improved, would better your experience at work. For example, imagine a person has to go outside daily and manually measure liquid level in tanks, record them, and then report those findings to others. By using an IIoT monitor instead, those tank levels could be recorded automatically in any type of weather and even multiple times during the day, eliminating a tedious task and preventing injury that could result from climbing on tanks. Or, imagine you are monitoring your customer’s assets. If their inventories are visible in real time, customers who don’t need servicing would not receive unnecessary deliveries. Meanwhile, malfunctions in remote equipment that would otherwise go unnoticed can be addressed in a timely manner, thereby improving efficiency and productivity.

After identifying and evaluating the pain point, determine the cost of implementing the solution. Whether you are an IIoT supplier trying to get a sale or someone within a company that is trying to get funding to implement the project, there are always people to convince. If the pain point and the value gained from the project are both high, then the convincing will be easier as you have a good story to tell. If the opposite is true, then the convincing will involve more work and a bullet-proof ROI will be necessary. Determining the willingness of someone to spend money on an IIoT application early will help guide you on how much of your resources to devote to the project.

Once your solution’s ROI is deemed worthy, it’s time to consider how to set up the solution. IIoT applications will involve the collection of data and how that data benefits a business is up to the user. This data could be a collection of physical measurements such as distance, temperature, force, vibration, and level and/or conditions such as alerts when a physical measurement exceeds a limit. A user will have to receive that data and take action for it to be of value. Who is that person in the user organization, what are they monitoring, and why? How will they get the data and how will they act on the information in that data?

There is an important distinction to be made here: Data is, most often, like a big pile of numbers that don’t usually tell you anything without being analyzed. Information, on the other hand, is data that is made actionable. An alert is an example of actionable information. When a physical measurement crosses a threshold on a monitored asset, the IIoT system captures that event and signals a user that this has happened. Then, the user initiates an action to correct the condition that caused the physical measurement to exceed the threshold. If this had been, for example, a temperature that reached a maximum limit and the user had been presented with only the temperature data, then that person might have to look up in a chart the maximum value for that reading before knowing which action to take. Further, an IIoT system could have alerted the user that the temperature reading was trending to a limit and the user could take preventive action. The implementer of the IIoT system will need to decide how and where in the system the data collected from the monitored device will be transformed into actionable information.

Additionally, all of this data and information needs to be accessible. Ask yourself, where will it be stored and for how long? Will the IIoT application have a monitor at the site that sends alerts and status information directly to a computer or smart phone, or will it send it to the cloud, or both? Some remote IIoT devices are certainly capable of communicating directly to you, but for devices that are battery-powered, the ability to interact with the device and make requests of it would be severely limited to preserve power. An always-on, line-powered device would be able to take requests from you on demand. Another common approach is for the monitor to report to the cloud. This is just a server in a data center somewhere that your monitor communicates with, which can be accessed by logging into a website. This approach will allow you to access the data and information from all the monitors any time you want and from any internet-connected computer or smart phone. The website can allow you to see all of your monitored assets in chart or graphical style and provides reporting functions. Some of these web sites can provide analytic functions to further turn data into actionable information.

Finally, consider which business processes should be changed to make the most of your IIoT application. If people keep doing what they have always done, then the money and resources spent to implement the IIoT application will be wasted. Imagine your company sends people in trucks to service customers by maintaining inventory at their sites. A newly implemented IIoT application at those sites determines when to schedule a service call based on the inventory. However, your company pays employees by the number of customers they service each pay period, just as it did before the IIoT application was implemented. So, the employees ignore the routing or delivery schedule and stop by local customers whether they need service or not, in order to maximize their income. Why have the IIoT system at all? Instead, the employees should have incentives that take into account dollars of services provided per number of stops such that they become more productive as they use the information coming from the IIoT application. A discussion with your employees about how this application will change your business before the application is implemented will also help set up your company for success.

There are many important practical considerations to think about before deciding to take on an IIoT application at your place of business. This list is by no means exhaustive – instead, it is meant to start a new thought process around the IIoT. By taking the time to think through these considerations, you will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome for your IIoT application.

Check in next week for part two.

Brad Briggs is a Director of Product Development at ATEK Access Technologies. He has been instrumental in the development of two IoT applications, AssetScan and TankScan. His background is in electrical engineering and technical management.

Brad Briggs, ATEK Access Technologies
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