In today’s world of the cloud, big data, and the industrial internet of things (IIoT), terms such as smart devices and smart infrastructure dominate the technology conversation.
Smart usually means automated and/or connected in the industrial sector. For this article, smart infrastructure is defined as the tools, sensors, and software required to gather and aggregate data to maintain asset reliability and uptime, but facilities can be “smart” in different ways.
A traditionally defined smart infrastructure will get you nowhere unless your facility and maintenance teams are ready for it. Sometimes, smart may mean developing the infrastructure over time versus taking an all-or-nothing approach. In some situations, smart may mean run-to-failure for some inexpensive and easy-to-replace assets. For a plant or facility to really be smart, it should put an infrastructure in place that meets its immediate needs with the flexibility to expand as the needs and abilities of the maintenance team mature and change.
Some facilities may be far enough along in their reliability journey that they can add full, long-term condition monitoring and data storage for most of their assets. If you are not quite there yet but would like to learn how to begin, consider these incremental steps you can take to begin the journey to establishing a smart infrastructure.
What is the end goal?
Before implementing any technology solution, the expected results must first be clearly defined. Most facilities do not need operational or health data on every asset, and they may not need continuous data. The technology infrastructure should gather data required to determine equipment faults. Most maintenance professionals do not need data telling them that an asset is functioning correctly. They need to know when its operation is about to be disrupted.
After determining the data that is most needed, facility personnel need to decide the best way to collect and act on this data. If the data will be used to determine work orders for maintenance technicians, then an enterprise asset management (EAM) system or computerized maintenance management software (CMMS) is strongly suggested to be part of the smart infrastructure. These systems may be able to receive actionable data from an asset (either manually entered or automatically sent to the system by tools and sensors) and produce an automated work order that is emailed to the assigned technician. An EAM or CMMS may be proprietary to keep data within the facility or cloud-based to provide a more-flexible environment.
Regardless of the selected technology, after your facility decides what data are needed, a technology provider may be able to help determine the best and most frequent way to gather that data. Determining the time frame and the measurement methods are the next steps to deciding the type of infrastructure required.
Time frames and hardware requirements
Measurement options should be flexible. If a plant has a couple of bad actors, then continuous monitoring of those assets with a sensor may be a better solution than route-based maintenance, which may not catch a problem with sufficient time to prevent a failure. If the asset is inexpensive but critical to a process, continuous monitoring with a thermal imaging sensor may be a good first step.
However, most facility managers cannot snap their fingers and install a sensor for continuous condition monitoring on every asset. Many facilities do not have the financial ability or the time to immediately replace route-based activities with condition monitoring. Besides the financial ramifications and time required to upgrade asset monitoring, some equipment may not need continuous monitoring. For this reason, having the flexibility to continue using handheld tools that send data to the cloud for storage and aggregation can be a benefit.
If a piece of equipment only requires vibration monitoring once per month because it is in a low-wear, nonaggressive application, then route-based, monthly monitoring with a handheld vibration meter may be all that is required unless problems start to arise. For this asset and this facility, this setup will be the smartest infrastructure.
However, if a facility has experienced the exit of experienced talent and preventive maintenance with routes is unrealistic, then cost-effective wireless sensors may be a practical option. If the sensors are temporary and wireless, their installation and movement to other assets will be easy. Again, in this situation, this likely will prove to be the best infrastructure – one that is flexible and can grow and adapt with the plant and during staffing changes.
Is data integration needed?
In many facilities, data should be aggregated and stored for analysis. The IIoT, which is basically numerous connected assets, allows for the cost-efficient use of different technologies. For smart infrastructure, a method for collecting and storing all of the information from all of the data sources is preferred. However, most hardware providers have their own platforms for data storage, and these do not usually talk to other platforms.
An ideal setup would be for the data collected by handhelds tools and sensors (external and internal to assets/skids), operation/process data, information from building management systems, and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) data to be aggregated in the same location for comparison and analysis. This integration could allow maintenance managers and technicians to be on top of all asset health and receive alarms within seconds of an event.
A software system that integrates SCADA and other machine/sensor data with an EAM/CMMS can also send workflows to any connected device. This allows a team to respond to fault notifications on the move and create, access, or process work orders related to the notification.
Does the facility have a leader?
Any facility’s reliability journey begins with one person deciding to take make a change. Change can be difficult, disrupting everyone’s normal routine. But one strong leader can help inspire a maintenance team to change its culture and adopt new methods and technologies.
Part of your cultural infrastructure should also include enlisting the support of facility leadership (including at the C-level). Having a strong reliability leader on the team plus the support of other stakeholders will help new routines take hold. Commitment from the top and a budget to support the technology and its implementation are critical. If this top-level support, buy-in, and adoption do not come together, the new, smart infrastructure may end up unused in a drawer.