Getting Started with IoT for Manufacturing

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Published on
2022-08-15
Written by
Duan Gauche

“In the beginning … the earth was formless and empty.”  – Genesis

Where to begin? That is a good question. One of my colleagues suggested I just start writing and not stop until I’ve finished a couple of paragraphs. Admittedly, that was advice about writing a blog, not for starting an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) project.

Most likely, you are beginning at the point where someone in your company has undoubtedly heard about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), Factory 4.0, or one of these IIoT terms.  I am willing to wager that there is at least some interest, if not urgent pressure, from leadership to take advantage of these new technologies to drive profitability and become more competitive. So now what?

Research into the success of such projects indicates that only 26% of all surveyed companies believe that they are successful with their IoT initiatives. Interestingly 35% of IT executives considered their initiatives successful vs 15% of business executives.  So, your initial research has led you to conclude that there is disconnect with the definition of success among the ranks.

I have been implementing IIoT technology for over a decade, so I have started from the beginning many times. The IIoT parallel of “where to begin” should read: Start by setting reasonable expectations and connecting just a few machines.  Or, as I often say, “switch on the lights”. A sensible approach would be to identify some of your most ubiquitous and meaningful machines, investigate their data interfaces or control systems, connect to these, and collect the data.  Once you have an understanding of the data that is available, it’s time to consider the vision for the next round.

The first round of IIoT, and possibly the first few, will be a learning experience.  Structuring your goals around learning and celebrating failures (and learning from said failures) will serve you well.  For example, when I first looked at connecting to a brewery system, it took a whole day to connect into the Beckhoff TwinCAT PLC (not always easy with people looking over your shoulder). It took so long, not because of anything complex, but just because and we had to guess config settings. As one might expect in a brewery, there was some beer drinking after connection to the PLC was established and we could see some real live data.  But, we also learned that there was much less useful data presented than hoped for.

In brainstorming workshops at the beginning of projects, the ideas are very practical and focused on business value. The first project looks great. Lofty expectations are set across the board. Unfortunately, this is where things often go wrong.  And that’s why it’s best to start with simply turning on the lights. Sometimes, for various reasons, you just can’t get your hands on the data from equipment in the plant or out there in the real world.  If you are lucky, you have one of the Kepware products and with reasonable ease, you can connect PLCs and other industrial equipment (such as in the aforementioned brewery example). But if you can’t, you’ll need to start there.

Now here comes the data.  What do you do with the data? Let’s pause. What does “the data” mean?

“Reducing downtime” through preventative maintenance is one of the most common use cases for IIoT project workshops. Here is the challenge: If the control system in your equipment does not record downtime, your initiative to reduce downtime becomes impossible. (And hence, it becomes clear why only 15% of Business Executives consider their IIoT initiatives successful). You need a strong team with experience in IIoT technologies, knowledge of the equipment, and expertise with the control systems to move things forward. But, if the data is not collected by the machine, it is not available to collect.

By first focusing on connecting to equipment and acquiring real-world data, you can determine what data points are available and what use cases these data points enable. Armed with this insight, you are in a great position to set realistic expectations and guide your organization to fund initiatives that will have early returns.

Some initiatives companies may choose to prioritize might be:

  • New or improved sensors to capture additional data to empower teams to make better decisions
  • Redesigned or optimized control systems to report more information
  • New or redesigned products or subsystems to enable entirely new business models such as pay-per-use.

The ROI in the initial cycles of your IoT projects lies in time-to-insight. By focusing on immediate goals of connectivity, and using scalable technology architected for industrial equipment and complex use cases you can “switch the lights on” quicker and your acquired skills and experience scales to the next leg of your journey.

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