What the IoT means for plant operations


The advent of the Internet of Things will result in a complete overhaul of industrial operations.

While the concept of smart machines is not exactly new, never has there been such a widespread movement to create large networks of connected machines.

This is so much so that entire cities are inundating their streets with sensors in order to join the growing list of ‘smart cities’. Industrial sectors have seen the same movement, with plants racing to implement smart devices that will communicate real-time information to other connected devices and systems, resulting in increased transparency and efficiency, and lower costs.

However, in the rush to digitise industrial processes and reach the coveted ‘Industry 4.0’, many people are missing the point.

There is a lot of confusion around the Internet of Things (IoT) and what it actually means. Some people think of IoT as a “product” that they need to buy in order to remain competitive.

Others are confused about the difference between IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M), with 45 per cent of respondents in Gemalto’s IoT Outlook 2016 report considering the two to be exactly the same.

Then there are those that don’t mention IoT in their projects at all, with some businesses hoping to solve problems completely within their own organisation.

The official definition of IoT is a network or networks encompassing the use of standard Internet Protocol (IP) technologies to connect people, processes and things to enable new cyber-physical systems.

This concept transcends individual organisations, which end up serving as independent “data collectors” that communicate information to other organisations to solve a bigger problem.

For example, in order to communicate available parking spots to Google Maps users, individual carparks send data to Google, which is then collated and programmed into Maps to be made available to drivers.

This “horizontal” data-sharing is a key component of the IoT, and applies not just to the consumer world, but to industrial operations as well.

The Industrial IoT (IIoT) can be seen as a subset of the IoT, where wireless connections exist to produce goods for the marketplace and monitor the processes involved.

The horizontal flow of data is enabling the IIoT to revolutionise industrial processes in many ways. In manufacturing for example, the Purdue model of Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) has dominated the operation of manufacturing systems for the past 20 years or so.

The Purdue CIM model is hierarchical in nature, involving the upward flow of information in a pyramid-like structure from the shop floor to high-level enterprise systems.

Essentially, sensing systems like PLCs, sensors, motors and drives are at the bottom of the pyramid, feeding information to control and device networks like SCADA, which then travels up to the Manufacturing Execution System (MES), and then finally to the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system.

With the advent of the IIoT however, use of vertical data flows alone no longer makes sense.

This is because in order to fully exploit the potential of the IoT, data must be free to flow wherever in the system it can add value.

This is the difference between M2M and Enterprise IoT systems. With M2M, there are vertical silos of data that do not add value beyond a specific sub-system.

In an Enterprise IoT system however, everything is interconnected and the right data flows to the right place at the right time, allowing better insight into industrial processes. In this modern, interconnected system, it is important that data flows are both vertical and horizontal, intersecting at key points.

Indeed, by connecting machines to machines, people to machines and machines and people to a more expanded system of systems, manufacturers can create intelligent networks and factory systems along the entire value chain.

This will lead to factory systems that communicate and control each other simultaneously with significantly reduced operator intervention.

For example, the supplier of a specific product may be able to “see” a factory’s stock levels and take action to prevent the factory from running out (with permission of course).

This is just one example of how industrial operations can be further streamlined with use of the IIoT. While transitioning to an Enterprise IoT system poses many challenges to industrial plants, the benefits of this new, highly connected system will far outweigh these challenges.

Harnessing the IoT will also become increasingly important for companies to remain competitive as the industrial landscape continues to change.