Making the abstract concrete in IIoT

Talk about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is all the rage. But what are the real advantages of digital technologies associated with the concept? PACE speaks with Ali Hafeez from Endress+Hauser to find out about the tangible benefits of data-based technology.

The concept of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has become pervasive across industrial sectors. Associated with the use of big data, cloud platforms, machine learning, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence, IIoT presents companies with opportunities to boost productivity, increase efficiency and eliminate waste.

However, without a focus on precise strategies the transition to IIoT can either seem overwhelming or nebulous and ill-defined. While the benefits of data-driven technology and devices are often painted in broad brushstrokes, the focus too frequently fixates on technology, leaving people scratching their head about how they can help their business’s bottom line and whether making the investment is worthwhile.

According to Ali Hafeez, solutions manager at Endress+Hauser, the term IIoT has been a buzzword for some time, to the point where it even causes some in the industry to cringe when they hear it. In Hafeez’s mind, the focus must now fall on moving from buzzword to practical reality.

“We are seeing that there is a large appetite in industry for mining data and analysing it for trends,” Hafeez told PACE. “But, also, we are noticing our clients are starting to become savvy and looking beyond data mining to gathering actionable insights.”

Currently, niches are developing where customers want predictive analysis for small processes or assets, while not necessarily having to go to the expense of integrating this into the existing SCADA/DCS system. While the future industrial automation architecture is very different to the current stack (IO- PLC/DCS – HMI/SCADA – MES – ERP), there is for existing sites a more pragmatic approach for cloud- based solutions that sit alongside the traditional process control architecture.

However, according to Hafeez, there have been some challenges in the communication of the tangible benefits of IIoT that are only now beginning to be overcome.

“For a long time, IIoT was confused with just uploading masses of data in a repository,” he said.

The benefits of IIoT are well beyond the mere collection of data, revolving around what can be done with it. “The data has always been there, but what customers want now is to be able to utilise that data in a meaningful way,” he said. “And we are now moving to a place where this is enabled by new technologies, including new platforms and artificial intelligence software, which can analyse the data, determine trends and extract actionable insights out of it.”

Indeed, where IIoT has changed things up is in new sophisticated software and the way in which devices are now becoming “smarter” in response. For example, now that platforms can handle large volumes of data and pull more data out of it, Endress+Hauser has been innovating its devices that make the extraction of more extensive and detailed data easier for IIoT-type approaches.

“Traditionally, a flowmeter, for instance, would just measure the flowrate through pipes. But we have developed sophisticated hardware on top of that that enables you to pull out additional variables like density, temperature, but also detailed diagnostics. Some of our flowmeters can monitor over a hundred diagnostic parameters. The technology enables us to now send this large amount of data relatively easily to IIoT platforms for detailed analysis,” said Hafeez.

These kinds of parameters can be correlated to certain process issues and offer predictive analyses of where the plant and asset are headed – particularly whether the process is headed towards a fault, or if a product quality issue is imminent and could be pre-emptively rectified. Alongside developments at the device level, Endress+Hauser has also developed its own cloud platform, allowing customers to access detailed asset information that enables this type of prediction and advanced condition monitoring.

“That means IIoT can help with maintenance and asset life-cycle analysis. It can help you very quickly understand what is happening in a plant and indicate trends or tendencies that will lead to faults. At the device level, that is really an innovation,” said Hafeez.

The additional parameters can also help companies limit their turnover of devices and prevent waste. Hafeez said that pH sensors are a good example of this due to their limited lifespan. “People tend to chuck out pH sensors and treat them as a consumable – they get calibrated once or twice and then they are replaced. But what we can do with our pH sensors is provide additional parameters which can provide accurate estimations of their lifespan.”

These estimations can enable companies to extend the lifespan of their pH sensors, as it can now be determined more precisely whether or not the devices need to be replaced. And in instruments with longer inherent lifespans, like level transmitters and flowmeters, Endress+Hauser offers what it calls “Heartbeat technology” where the devices are able to self-verify and monitor themselves, and in some cases even self-calibrate.

“They monitor all the parameters inside the flowmeter against the initial calibration. If the results are within the threshold limits set during the initial factory calibration, a company won’t have to send someone out to calibrate the device,” said Hafeez.

“Our cloud asset management system can tell them when they need to bring in the technicians, and precisely what needs to fixed – making repairs more efficient and reducing time spent on site by contractors. All of these result in very tangible cost-savings – and this is really what’s been missing in the whole IIoT story to date – the link between the action and the benefit.”

“In the IIoT space, it’s also about monitoring information to make economic or environmental decisions, rather than safe process control decisions. “Upper-level decision-makers don’t necessarily need to know the same information that interests the plant engineers and operators such as temperature or pressure information. They just want to know the overall productivity of a plant, or how long the stock currently in the tanks will last,” said Hafeez.

Cloud technologies are transforming the way in which data is gathered, stored, transferred, and analysed.

“In the past, on a remote mine site, for instance, while the operator may have many processes with a lot of throughput information about the site’s productivity, all of that information was essentially on a Distributed Control System (DCS) or SCADA system, and to get that information back to decision makers at head office was difficult and therefore expensive,” Hafeez said.

It isn’t just large distributed mine sites, with less infrastructure required to monitor and analyse operations – IIoT is also well-suited to widely-distributed processes such as those found in aquaculture or water networks.

Now, with IIoT, the data can be sent online via edge devices and can be stored and analysed in the cloud, and dashboards can simply be viewed via a web browser on a computer or mobile devices. This provides those who are not necessarily sitting in the plant the means to help shape important business-wide decision making. Further notifications and alerts can be sent to these decision makers when certain thresholds have been passed, enabling fast response where and when it is needed.

Overall, IIoT is offering industrial companies the opportunity to effectively harness the data that is already abundant in their systems, providing fruitful avenues by which companies can make better informed decisions on the basis on real-time advanced analytics.

“And that is what we have been working on at Endress+Hauser,” said Hafeez. “As a progressive instrumentation manufacturer, we are working on utilising our expertise to help our customers get access to relevant information (not just data) quickly to make important decisions for their businesses going forward, and ultimately become more efficient.”