IIoT: To cloud or not to cloud?

The first step is to identify the business challenges that you are trying to solve.

By Bill Sayavich and Mario Calvo, Parker Hannifin

From smart thermostats and garage door openers, to fitness devices that wirelessly connect to your smartphone, the internet of things (IoT) is all around, but you may not always recognize it. So, if a connected device is good enough for your home, why not critical machines and business processes?

By bridging the gap between the digital and physical worlds, the industrial internet of things (IIoT) is ushering in a new era of efficiency, growth and information by giving companies clear line of sight to critical assets and manufacturing processes.

First step: Identify your challenge

While some businesses have already committed the time and resources to invest in condition monitoring solutions, others may be having trouble figuring out where to begin.For those organizations, the first question to answer is, "What business challenge are you trying to solve?"

Organizations typically are trying to solve productivity and uptime scenarios. To determine what data needs to be collected and why, we recommend that you put together a small recon team of operations workers, including maintenance, production, and plant managers, the people whose purpose at the plant is to make sure that the equipment is running, and that they have the parts they need to make repairs.

This team takes the first steps in putting together a plan by determining where problem areas are located and what they want to measure to alleviate those problems. For example, if a maintenance worker has to walk the plant floor for hours each day collecting diagnostic data, and then take even more time to crunch that data with a spreadsheet, a solution that calculates the data and sends it directly to a smartphone or PC is going to fundamentally change the way that company does business. Another option is to ask each person on the team to complete the statement, "If I knew X, I could avoid Y.” For example, using pressure sensors, operators can diagnose issues with cylinders or pumps that might not be operating at optimal levels.

From there, operators must decide which assets will be fitted with the IIoT-enabled condition monitoring solution.

Next step: Build from the bottom up

It’s important for first-time IIoT users to start with a condition monitoring solution for one or two critical assets to better understand how it benefits their processes and their bottom line. While the natural progression may be to migrate to a fully monitored plant, your team's goal should be to develop a strategy for listening to the most critical machines or processes without necessarily attaching a sensor to every machine or component.

Begin by listing any asset of critical importance–the machines that run the most hours and have the least redundancy– and then from that list determine a small subset of those assets to begin gathering greater operational insight.Machines that are difficult to repair or have rare parts should also be added to the short list, as well as assets that could present a danger to employees if conditions go unchecked. By monitoring the conditions most critical to each asset, operators can predict that asset’s health, thus prevent downtime.

Decision: Bluetooth or cloud?

Depending on critical asset list and on the conditions the team commits to monitoring (e.g. temperature, pressure, humidity and vibration), an internet infrastructure may need to be installed. While Bluetooth-powered sensors can transmit data to mobile devices within range without an internet infrastructure, cloud-based systems need an internet infrastructure in order to get the data to users who are just feet away, or anywhere in the world.

The good news is that IIoT-enabled devices can work with wireless or hardwired/LAN networks– you don’t need high-speed internet or big data internet services. All that's required to get started is an internet connection, electricity, and data to measure. Cloud-based solutions usually have a collection server to receive and transmit data from all sensors in the network. If sensors are out of range, repeaters can be installed to extend the signal without interference.

After working with the recon team to determine the type of sensors to use, the engineering and maintenance teams plan the number of sensors needed to achieve the intended goals. When placing sensors, you should expect to adjust your plan as well as sensor locations during a piloting phase. Also, after ensuring the system works properly, it’s important to properly train the workers who will be using it; and, workers with access to the data must be able to translate it into useful analytics.

One of the biggest challenges is striking a balance between monitoring frequency and keeping operational costs low and assets running. One advantage of cloud-based solutions is that they allow for constant monitoring, as well as alerts for when conditions breach a preset threshold. As an alert comes in, you can identify which sensor it’s coming from and where that sensor is placed, allowing users to zero in on problem areas with large, complex equipment. Connecting to the sensors allows users to plot data trends and diagnose where the problem is occurring quicker and easier than if the operator were using manual gauges and manifolds.

Hardware for cloud-based solutions typically cost more than Bluetooth sensors, so organizations that are new to IIoT should consider starting with Bluetooth to ensure that the solution is useful, and then work up to a cloud-based solution as needed. Older assets can be retrofitted with either Bluetooth or cloud-based IIoT solutions.

Beyond uptime

Based on the type of program you implement, your IIoT solution can not only alert you to issues with your assets, but can also provide a seamless and efficient path to securing critical spare parts globally. There are hundreds of millions of critical components in use today that are essentially invisible to traditional asset management systems, and equipment vendors have spent great deal of effort at digitizing their products and creating a cloud-based library of assets.

This is a paradigm shift for the industry, and we hope teams are starting to recognize the value that IIoT can deliver to their organizations.