If it walks like a duck and honks like a duck, it’s probably a goose…

I was born and raised in northern Cincinnati and like many Midwest cities, we suffer from an extreme increase in the Canadian Goose population. These geese love to flit about in man-made water retention ponds, a result of new commercial development over the last few decades, and with an increase of habitat comes population rise. When my children would spot them – floating, flapping, walking, honking (not quacking), they immediately called out, “Hey Dad, look at the ducks!” The engineer in me couldn’t help but promptly correct them – “These aren’t ducks, kids, they’re geese!” No matter how many times I explained the differences, they insisted on referring to the geese as ducks.

We hear about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) in the media, and many main stream Instrumentation & Controls vendors even remarket their existing product lines as IIoT products. Engineers often suggest that they’ve “been doing IIoT for years.” This marketing spin and lack of understanding around IIoT causes my engineer gears to rev – I can’t help but identify that what the industry has been doing and what IIoT promises is just like calling a goose a duck.

Yes, the sensors we use in manufacturing are becoming smarter and better connected. Yes, they are coming with onboard web configuration interfaces — but, are they really IoT?  What does the process of implementing additional sensors into manufacturing systems using traditional methods look like?

Let’s say we wish to add a proximity switch to a manufacturing line to count the number of units produced. The process would look like this:

  1. Identify the need
  2. Define requirements and specify hardware and cabling
  3. Identify an open contact on a digital input module or add an expensive high-speed counting module, depending on speed requirements and engineering in step one
  4. Purchase the sensor
  5. Mechanically install the proximity switch
  1. Wait for downtime on production systems
  2. Add new module to PLC rack, if needed
  3. Run wire from the proximity switch to the input module
  4. Modify the PLC program to execute logic based on the new functionality to count pulses and identify when the counter will roll over to avoid an overflow situation
  5. Test the PLC program logic
  6. Create an HMI display to use production counts, or configure a Historian to log production counts
  7. Optionally, take additional steps to tie the new counter into higher level MES/Line Performance system to capture OEE.

To add one sensor and leverage the information it provides, writing the PLC code and building the appropriate applications require a significant investment in both time and money. This becomes even more challenging if the equipment is aging and doesn’t currently have a PLC, as there are still mechanical manufacturing lines operating today. A few years back, I came across a pie shell machine in operation comprised entirely of motors, gears, pulleys, and relays – not a single PLC. Don’t assume that just because the system is old, the need to gather smart data metrics diminishes. Many vendors would recommend adding a PLC to this system to gather critical production metrics – requiring designing a control panel, electrical wiring, and buying a PLC with I/O.

Now, let’s compare this with a modern IIoT implementation process:

  1. Identify the need
  2. Purchase the IIoT device and sensor
  3. Mechanically install the proximity switch
  4. Connect the IIoT device to a wireless network, hardwired ethernet, or purchase the IIoT device with onboard 2g/3g connectivity already activated
  5. Plug into 120v or 24vdc power
  6. Create an account in the cloud web application

Done. No engineering. No coding. Just plug-n-play. You can walk down to the plant floor from the board room and have a wealth of data collecting within in an hour. What does this mean for you? Not only are you able to count parts, display and trend, but you also have access to downtime metrics, MTBF, MTTR, OEE and analytics. If you were to place an internet browser window near the line, you receive stop causes selected by a prepopulated list from the operator, allowing you to analyze production stoppages. Of course, people don’t give this stuff away for free – there is a catch. The total cost for this solution, wait for it…$150.00 per month, per sensor, with unlimited users. On volume, I imagine a skilled negotiator could secure even better per machine pricing, but whose OpEx budget couldn’t afford to at least give it a try?

As a system integrator, this could be quite unnerving. There has been gradual shift from OEM vendors to minimize the friction for implementing their products and lower the total cost of implementation by reducing the labor of system integration. We make our living on the complexity of integration.

So why is IIoT a game changer? I’ll use my house as a simple example to help answer that question. In my home, each floor has its own HVAC unit, totaling three unique systems which operate independent of each other. These systems have no onboard ethernet or wireless connectivity, just like many machines and systems existing on plant floors: they’re disconnected, self-contained, operational units. The first thing I did when I bought my house was to purchase three Ecobee smart thermostats. In less than an hour, I had all three units connected to the internet and operating in unison with one another. When I want to switch to heat, I simply go to my smart phone or any thermostat in the house and all units switch to heat mode. I now have a central SCADA which offers control and monitoring capabilities, and the units no longer operate independently. To top it off, I also have built-in analytics and smart control features that enable me to save money by operating more efficiently.

This is the true power of IIoT – the smart enablement of dumb systems, without a rip-and-replace. This is the future of manufacturing – purpose-built applications with a mixture of computing and control at the edge, connected to cloud-based applications with ready-to-go analytics.

Many manufacturers have been left behind during the Industry 3.0 movement, while others are in states of “Islands of Automation” with disconnected assets. In many cases, moving from disconnected production assets to enterprise connected assets with traditional engineering could mean either a complete re-control or rip-and-replace. This requires huge capital investment for systems that may still be functioning profitably; however, the need for data to drive decisions hasn’t lessened. IIoT allows manufacturers to smart-enable their assets for potentially easy to find thousands in OpEx funding, over highly difficult to procure tens of millions of dollars in CapEx funding. IIoT means smart enablement of production systems now, with minimal investment costs.

Just as Ducks and Geese have some very similar characteristics, so does Modern IIoT and traditional automation controls.  But always remember, “if it walks like duck and honks like a duck, it’s probably a goose.”