Visit any manufacturing trade show or check out any engineering blog and you won’t be able to miss those three little words seemingly on everyone’s mind and on the tip of everyone’s tongue lately: Internet of Things. The potential application of IoT technology appears limitless, and for compressed air systems, the energy-saving impact could truly be game-changing. Here’s a look at how the Internet of Things will affect compressed air systems, and of equal importance, how end users should start preparing today for this new technology revolution.
The concept behind the IoT – connecting critical equipment with data communications and transmitting the data via the Internet – certainly is not new. As consumers, we’ve been enjoying the modern conveniences of the IoT for several years – scanning a bar code on an empty medicine bottle to refill a prescription at the pharmacy, for example, or receiving a notice that our online order has been delivered. And with tablet and smartphone use on the rise and websites switching to responsive design faster than you can say “mobile-friendly,” the IoT is becoming a part of our daily lives.
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), logically, builds on the connectivity of the IoT and applies it to machines and equipment in the manufacturing world. The IIoT blurs the lines of individuality when it comes to a particular piece of equipment. Instead, integrated connectivity makes it possible to view the pieces as a single system. Data are collected from numerous points in the system and analyzed to give a more precise understanding of system operation and how deviations from key threshold values affect the system’s overall efficiency and provide a means for more precise process control.
Today, organizations such as the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) are working to bolster interconnectedness so data can be collected, analyzed, and leveraged to reduce waste and ultimately improve operational effectiveness and profitability.
The end goal is the realization of the Smart Factory – where the IIoT is fully connected and integrated with the element of human analytics. The IIoT is merely the data stream; it still requires human intervention to perform actual repair work or maintenance and to make decisions. With the IIoT, automation replaces key parts of plant processes, freeing up plant personnel to analyze and respond to the data stream. In the Smart Factory, cyber-physical and human systems work together seamlessly to better and more efficiently integrate technology with a person’s daily work so he or she can more effectively manage plant assets.
Adding compressed air systems within the context of the Smart Factory promises major efficiency gains because energy for making compressed air often is one of the highest costs a plant has. Many plant executives profess concern about controlling costs, but they overlook compressors until there is a problem with a unit and their compressed air supply is disrupted, causing production to come to a standstill. The Smart Factory has the potential to amplify the “set it and forget it” mentality even more given that increased monitoring would enable predictive maintenance and, as a result, prevent disruptions to the compressed air supply.
With the compressed air system gathering, compiling, and analyzing system data on a local level, energy efficiency is continually tracked and monitored. Smart system controls ensure that energy-efficient selections are always made to meet whatever the production demand may be. Temperature, pressure, vibration, and other sensors are installed throughout the system, continually measuring key parameters and uploading this data to a cloud-based network where a maintenance provider monitors it closely. A spike in a motor temperature winding, for example, would raise a flag; further data would be reviewed for prediagnostics; and parts would be pulled from inventory and dispatched with a service technician. The repair would take place before an actual problem occurred, before anyone noticed, without disrupting production. In concept, the Smart Factory will cause the extinction of downtime.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the IoT and dream of the day when we won’t have to worry about equipment failure. But when it comes to the future of interconnected manufacturing, the big issue that few people are talking about is preparation. This isn’t going to happen overnight. Making a Smart Factory concept a reality tomorrow necessitates making fundamental changes to your system today – changes in equipment and in mindset.
When it comes time to make changes to your plant equipment, don’t go for a slapdash, elastic-bandage solution. Research the equipment’s communications capabilities, and make this a major factor in your purchase decision. Simply recycling equipment from sister plants may save a few bucks on capital costs, but using obsolete technology means you will not have full communications capabilities down the road, and you may not be able to take advantage of many of the monitoring features available today.
A vital part of the Smart Factory’s future will be a solid relationship between the plant and maintenance provider that in part will rely on the service provider’s ability to at least monitor the compressed air system. Plan for this today by selecting equipment that allows for IoT connectivity. Select a partner carefully, as establishing the communications and protocols will require a thorough understanding of your plant’s operations and needs. Make sure the manufacturer you select will be the one to provide this support. A key aspect of this relationship is trust, as massive amounts of data will be shared and transmitted. As of now, the lines of who owns the millions upon millions of data points collected are blurry. No doubt this is a topic that will be heavily debated.
For better or for worse, increasing government interest in energy efficiency likely will lead to regulation that requires data from within the plant. The trend has already started today, most clearly with ISO 50001. This international standard has garnered considerable support, and the U.S. Department of Energy is also taking a closer look at it. A key part of this energy management standard is reporting. Get ahead of this by establishing the means to collect the data for your own analysis and energy optimization.
As regulations become more stringent and penalties for having inefficient systems become steeper, it will be all the more important to have built-in recording capabilities that not only track your energy data but also produce easy-to-understand charts, graphs, and reports that are ISO 50001-compliant. Some manufacturers have system master controllers with this capability today. As you consider efficiency improvements to your compressed air system, look for equipment and controls with these features.
Clearly, the IoT is here to stay. Much like Rome, however, the Smart Factory won’t be built in a day. As opportunities arise to improve your system, plan ahead with this picture of interconnected efficiency in mind. Doing so will save you time, money, and headaches down the road.