4 Questions Every Manufacturer Should Ask Before Upgrading to Industrial IoT Platforms

How manufacturers can intelligently implement IoT-enabled devices into their automation process.

internet of things IoT smart factory warehouse

As 2017 comes to a close, more and more organizations should—if that haven’t already—begin discussions on how the Internet of Things (IoT) can improve their operational capacity. In turn, many may decide to pursue further “smart manufacturing” options as they make changes or retool to take advantage of the lower costs and improved production IoT functionality can add to their operations.

“We have seen a lot of firms make presentations at our trade shows or through other marketing channels showcasing their ability to transform traditional manufacturing and logistical processes with IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) tech,” says Carl Ford, chief executive officer of Crossfire Media. “Add in other sectors, such as automotive, energy and health care, and it’s logical that most forward-looking businesses will want to increase their IIot footprint.”

Analysts estimate IoT adaption will reach anywhere from 8.3 billion devices this year to more than 20 billion in three years. And yet, despite the rapid adoption of IoT devices across a diverse set of industries, Ford says the intelligent use of them in a factory requires executives to first understand the history of industrial controls within their organization.

Many systems have replaced their relay logic systems, ones without intelligence or cascade systems, with software that has provided them with limited functionality. However, their design, Ford notes, allows them to work well in extreme temperatures. More modern systems give executives a higher availability of solutions with an ease of programming. These also give plant managers a process fault diagnostics capability with superior processing speeds for both a human-based and robotic armed processes.

Most manufacturing processes today deploy Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) or a Distributed Control system. “Many older factors have a SCADA system, which has a fail/safe distributed intelligence and an alarming strategy when something in a plant fails,” Ford says.

DCS and PLC are better with a centralized control system, managing various levels of controllers, networked with share control at local on-plant monitoring, he adds.

IIoT processes now join these older systems as part of the automation process. And that begs the question that many factory decision makers face: When is it time to make changes for this new technology, or should a company continue with their current tech capability?

To best answer that question, there are a few additional questions decision makers should ponder when considering the addition of IoT-based technology to their smart manufacturing mix.

Question #1:  Is the operating system open-ended or closed?

Many manufacturing software systems, often referred to as legacy systems, were developed with a closed process, one that allows further modifications only by having one specific software system engineer to make those changes.  

“For the foreseeable future, there will always be a legacy and closed system crucial to an operation with costs to replace that are too prohibitive,” says Daniel Price, chief executive officer at Breadware Inc., a Reno, Nevada company that designs and builds custom electronics for businesses launching IoT initiatives.

“The advantages of utilizing open software is being able to receive greater amounts of quantitative data in sections that previously were closed and could only be monitored through inputs to outputs,” he adds.

John Kowal, director of business development for B&R industrial systems, adds he and others are working with the Industrial Internet Consortium (ICC) to develop a future open standard that allows businesses to communicate with each other, regardless of their system’s software and hardware systems.

“We are becoming operating system agnostic,” says Kowal, who co-chairs the ICC’s smart factory group. 

He recommends that business integration teams embrace the OPC Foundation’s Uniformed Architecture (OPC-UA) as a resource for industrial automation.

Question #2:  Do we know where all Machine to Machine (M2M) based technology is located within our manufacturing facility?

Since the first PLC controllers were created, manufacturing managers have added them, often without much thought. Now, the fees for the connectivity act as a major cost factor in introducing them. These financial factors could be lowered if a smart manufacturing organization planned for it by looking for competitive bids to augment the needed communications bandwidth.

Chris Kuntz, vice president of marketing and strategy for Integron, a managed IoT services provider, recommends an IoT integration team complete an audit of known connectivity points.   Such audits can take time, but having a complete connectivity strategy and blueprint will help a smart manufacturing team avoid making the wrong decision on connectivity, required hardware and their costs.

 “Each connectivity point needs to have a data plan that factors in the costs for required hardware, as well as collecting, securing and transmitting data,” he says.

Kuntz adds that the return on investment (ROI) for updating a system to the IIoT standard typically hovers between 18 months to a year.   

However, the investment will help businesses better communicate with their key vendors and get diagnostical data that will help them make decisions. “Smart manufacturing will see crucial machine motions occurring at a hundredth of a microsecond,” says Kowal. “It will also eliminate operator error.”

Corky Roth, principal at the San Antonio, Texas-based Blackwater Group, says automation managers and their integration teams should also measure the connectivity requirements for their devices when adding newer IIoT platforms. Many need a low bandwidth, but bundling them with other communications requirements may cause technical issues when everyone uses them at the same time.

Bill Brehm, the chief operations officer of James Brehm and Associates, says each situation in any smart manufacturing operations differs because of the physical setting for a factory or operation.

For example, one company’s steel roof might cause issues with a wireless technology needed to add a smart manufacturing capability, while a factory that is located near an airport, college or interstate will also see an impact on some wireless signals.

“Imagine that your operation is next to a major interstate where there are hundreds of commuters, each driving a smart car that competes for bandwidth during a rush hour. If you have a manufacturing operation that also depends on that bandwidth, it can create serious issues,” Brehm explains.

Communications providers have created other options that help a smart manufacturing operation to connect machines to each other despite their environment (see sidebar). Kuntz says manufacturing executives could select four or five communications standards in one setting that would allow transmitted data to work together to inform decision makers of key changes, as well as alert their maintenance teams.

Question #3:  How secure is the IoT system when faced with outside threats?

Compared to other forms of reported security attacks, such as Equifax or Target, U.S. industrial IoT platforms have not been exposed to major attacks. The Stuxnet virus, which started in 2008, was the first truly significant computer malware designed to attack PLC systems, most notably ones controlling the Iranian nuclear program. According to several published sources, the worm destroyed more than 55-percent of those devices within the Iranian nuclear infrastructure.

Jim Jaeger, a cyber strategist at Arete Advisors, advises those involved in smart manufacturing to have their operational and security team to focus on the need to update security patches, which would eliminate exposure to attacks. “Many of the attacks have been made against known vulnerabilities,” Jaeger, a retired Air Force general, says. “Patches are available but not applied.”

Factory decision makers should also understand the biggest threat to their IoT-based resources comes from wiping attacks. A cyberattack could focus on a key industrial point where it would lock out the operational team from continuing without paying a ransom or hiring an IT/security team to correct it, Jaeger explains.   

Question #4: What key change management issues will new IoT tech capabilities bring?

With IoT, fewer humans in the communication loop will participate in manufacturing and logistical applications, Breadware’s Price says. He foresees more automated machine-to-machine transactions, where one machine subscribes to a service from another machine (not necessarily in the same factory) without a human in the loop.

He also believes smart manufacturing devices will see more automated maintenance with fewer service trips, as the technician will get more detailed information in a machine diagnosis report.

IoT processes will bring higher productivity as well. Kuntz cites a forklift manufacturer that places a tracking device on each piece of equipment. In the retail industry, where a typical distribution warehouse may contain dozens of these types of equipment, operators can know the location and health of each vehicle, allowing them to locate one within an area the size of a football field.

Making changes to integrate a communications platform to an existing one will take time and effort. However, if senior executives understand the technology changes available and the capability it brings, it will make them more competitive in the ever expanding smart manufacturing sector.