Given all the talk about self-managed, automated factories and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), it’s easy to forget that for most facilities, such concepts are little more than fantasy. Too often, manufacturers simply don’t have machines equipped to communicate with each other seamlessly or the IT support necessary to make interconnection happen.
What is IIoT?
The Internet of Things can be defined as a network of devices with onboard sensors capable of sharing data among themselves. However, this definition of IIoT is often expanded to mean specifically “devices that can serve data up to the cloud,” where the cloud is an external server managed by a third party. In reality, any network of devices, managed locally or not, can provide many of the same benefits that IIoT promises.
Ultimately, IIoT networks allow machinery, sensors and control systems to work together to allow for faster, more efficient production, dynamic response to product demands, and real-time optimization of manufacturing production and supply chain networks.
The definition that limits IIoT to a cloud-only architecture leads many factory managers to believe they aren’t equipped to take advantage of it or that it’s so far in the future they don’t need to worry about it now. Many are looking at their machinery and saying in essence, I'm glad my suppliers are talking about IIoT because I know that’s where we need to head to succeed in the future. But right now, our PLCs can't even communicate with other and we can’t even acquire sensor data.
No matter what level of communication these facilities have today, their managers can take some important interim steps to move their facilities from their current state (not sharing data at all) and build in scalability so that when the future arrives, their plants will be ready for cloud-based IIoT.
Step 1: Start working on getting all the devices in your facility talking to each other.
There are two ways to approach this step, each with its own pros and cons:
- Adding smart sensors that directly connect to a cloud-based network or a local network.
- Using existing sensors/systems but retrofitting with smarter PLCs or more capable Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs).
Getting all the facility’s devices talking to each other starts with finding vendors who offer solutions that allow the OEM machine builder to provide information to both the factory floor and administration, as well as remote access. These vendors can help you investigate tools/equipment that allow machine operators to create useful features on their own without IT intervention. The right vendors will offer unlimited “tags” and clear, easy-to-understand software licensing. Database tools that make it easy to work with SQL and Oracle and other database toolsets make it possible to implement solution can be implemented without requiring an experienced software developer
Devices or software that will allow you to aggregate data from all types of sources of data, including EtherCAT, Ethernet IP, Modbus, PROFINET, IO-Link, etc. represent smart IIoT investments. Software tools should also offer the ability to use future-proof communication methods such as OPC-UA, an open source, platform-independent client/server protocol. OPC-UA not only provides a standard communication method of sharing data between machines from various manufacturers but also between enterprise software platforms.
Step 2: Analyze and use the data that is now aggregated and collected.
This step allows management to begin creating and studying relationships between the different kinds of data to which they now have access. This data can be used in various ways to identify the root causes of manufacturing problems, whether it’s operator error, a change in raw materials, process variations, a machine failure, etc. At this point, each part can have historical data associated with it via a simple serial number. Managers can now determine what occurred to the product during every stage of the manufacturing process, including the operators who worked on it and any changes they might have made during the process. This gives managers an incredibly powerful toolset that can be employed as needed, such as during FDA audits or for determining the source of yield problems.
This new access to data also simplifies preventative maintenance. For example, if an operator uses the HMI to set an oven temperature to 500° F but the oven’s sensor only records a peak temperature of 496°F, an alert can be sent via SMS or e-mail to notify maintenance personnel that a temperature is outside the norm and should be investigated. Similarly, monitoring the current used by the motors over an extended period can give clues on whether the mechanics or motor is beginning to fail if the average level of current used increases significantly.
Step 3: Get the data quickly to the people who need it so they can do their jobs more effectively.
Many of the newest tools, such as embedded WebVisu in the PAC, incorporates a web server that allows people within the operation to find the information they need quickly. These tools support remote viewing, controlling, and editing of the HMI, all from a browser. These kinds of tools simplify sharing information in a variety of ways, such as allowing managers to check the day’s output or incoming jobs, simply by logging into HMI system. Factory floor supervisor can assess overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Anyone with the right credentials can get access to information as long as the system is set up correctly. The newest tools don’t even require corporate IT (those involved in enterprise software) to implement them because they don’t require involving the cloud or network security.
You don’t have to make a huge investment all at once to get many of the promised benefits of IIoT. Just make sure the money you’re spending now is spent wisely and the assets acquired now will eventually become part of the overall IIoT implementation.
Marissa Tucker is Product Marketing Manager of Controls and HMI in the Electromechanical and Drives Division at Parker Hannifin, Inc.