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The Industrial Internet of Things – where to start

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 4.0, the Internet of (IoT) Things and now the Internet of Energy – all these terms relate to how industries are adapting to the synergy between the connectivity of the internet and business. Whether it is manufacturing, processing or related industries, having device-to-device or people-to-device connectivity is a must, thus plant manufacturers and software developers now have to work hand-in-hand when developing products and services for industries, as well as smart factories.

While a large number of industries and industrial companies are tech savvy, there are those that, while they may have the smarts in their own particular field in the manufacturing and process industries, leave the IIoT in the ‘too hard’ basket. This kind of thinking is going to be detrimental to any industrial business that wants to keep up with the latest innovations, especially those who are setting up automated, or smart factories.

A stumbling block for some is not the intricacies of the internet and how it relates to the interconnectivity of devices within the business, but more where to start. It can be an overwhelming experience, especially if your current business has many different facets that need to be updated and adapted to the IIoT.

However, there are steps that can be taken that can be seen as at least a starting point. These steps will not address all the needs necessary for a business, but are designed to help it get underway in what will be a complicated, but ultimately rewarding innovation.
First it is important to identify the operational goal. It is recommended that when contacting a supplier or system integrator they are given a goal that is simple so that technical conversations on connectivity and network architecture start at the ground level.

An obvious starting point is to find out where the operational pain points are in a business. These could be environmental or technical causes, or they could be processes that need improving, or demands made by the management team. These pain points could be as specific as converting one legacy portion of an operation to the Ethernet, or they could be as broad as lowering company-wide manufacturing costs by 10 per cent within the next five years. If a provider knows up front what a business’ end goals are, they can tailor a solution taking these points into consideration. An example would be a recently acquired company trying to integrate its existing computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) system into the new company’s systems including its manufacturing execution system (MES).

Replacing an entire CIM would not be practical but the facility must be made more efficient and interoperable with the new company’s operational processes. The operations manager needs a brownfield solution that offers smart I/O condition monitoring that can help optimise their existing CIM and connect to the new MES.

Once the pain points have been identified and addressed, the next step is to develop and prioritise the operational goals. Having operational goals is good, however, if they are not prioritised in order of importance then it could be a pointless exercise. The objective here is to identify mission-critical solutions and/or improvements from those that would be considered benefits.

Additionally, prioritising these goals will allow the company, the integrator and the supplier to select the most scalable solution possible. This should ensure the operational goals will be met at the point of project completion, and long-term operational and maintenance costs will be considered as well if there is a need to scale up or down in the future.

Once priorities are set, the next step is to understand the interoperability status of key processes. A main consideration to take into account when achieving a connected smart factory is protocol division. Sometimes numerous disparate and proprietary fieldbus automation protocols may be encountered that must be connected to achieve operational goals. It is important to work with internal resources and integration teams to record and organise all devices, end nodes and equipment that exist within the company’s solution space. It is important to then register their corresponding protocols, physical interfaces, plant locations and operational purposes. It is also important to include any specific limitations or details relevant to the technology, device or piece of equipment that could be integral for a networking supplier or system integrator to know.

Finally, and probably the most important aspect is to make sure you choose the right devices when getting connected.

Uncovering potential hidden costs and savings of a connected, smart factory solution investment requires identification of explicit, as well as projected, operational costs and savings. In addition, by carefully formulating savings projections, combined with a payback timeline on the initial investment, a strong operational prospectus can be calculated. Getting started on the IIoT is not easy if a company is technophobic, or has no starting point. Once a company has scoped its priorities and made a definitive decision of its needs, then the rest of the puzzle will fall into place.

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