Most people have had experience with the Internet of Things – defined as the interconnection via the internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are popular examples that can be found in homes, interacting with humans and providing information.
The IoT reaches beyond virtual assistants. Cars now have automatic braking to avoid collisions, self-parking features and more. Security systems enable people to keep an eye out for suspicious activity at their homes or businesses via connected devices.
A more recent development is the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT. Although the various components for its use have been in place individually for years, more recent developments have enabled the IIoT to do everything from rapidly analyzing vast amounts of data for quick fact-finding to monitoring machine safety and predictive maintenance.
Paul Dunn and Chris McBride are on the Central Michigan University faculty and coordinators of the SAP Next-Gen chapter at CMU, which involves a team working on the Internet of Things for manufacturing. SAP Next-Gen chapters are established at globally leading universities to accelerate “innovation with purpose” in classrooms and with industry partners.
The key to bringing the IIoT to its current state involved linking systems and software together in a way that provides timely and important information.
“Parallel processing in systems like Hadoop allows businesses to analyze large volumes of data quickly enough to be able to act on business insights soon enough to begin to see cost benefits,” Dunn explained.
McBride noted the evolution of processor chips and the increased amount of random access memory, or RAM, in today’s industrial servers.
“The amount of RAM in servers today is well above the technical limitations of just a few years ago,” McBride said. “It is possible to have terabytes of RAM where a decade ago, 64 or 128 megabytes of RAM was the limit of many servers. The ability to load massive data sets into the application server or database server memory is what enabled the technology to become feasible.”
While both men agree that autonomous vehicles are the “sexiest” application of the IIoT, with hundreds of individual devices in a vehicle working together to provide safety, a more common use of IIoT technology is to keep the machines humming.
“The long-term goal for many companies today is predictive maintenance,” McBride explained. “Most companies I have spoken with see predictive maintenance as a strategic priority.”
Dunn took the concept further. He used as an example a mining company in a very remote area, far from the company’s service centers. The use of the IIoT to monitor machine safety and performance allows predictive, proactive maintenance instead of reactive maintenance after a piece of equipment has failed, which could bring operations to a standstill.
“Predictive maintenance is using data that take the real history into account,” he said. “It’s very interesting when you run different predictive models and change variables such as operating environment temperature and humidity, which have a large impact on the equipment’s life and maintenance needs.
“The normal use of a piece of equipment is what causes problems, so understanding that and identifying failures, along with root-cause analyses, allows companies to get a very good handle on maintenance,” Dunn added.
While both said the return on investment for the IIoT is difficult to ascertain for manufacturers, the monetary gain may be in monitoring the data.
“There is a local manufacturing company that installs various sensors in their machines and then the customer subscribes to a monitoring service,” McBride said. “Many manufacturers don’t have the expertise or tools to do this type of technology; and for them, I believe these kinds of subscription services will help them keep pace with companies that can do it.”
As to the future of the IIoT? That’s hard to gauge. Advancements are surely going to take place, but putting a price on the technology is another thing.
“While ‘everyone’ is doing it, it is isolated in many cases and many are simply pilots or proofs of concept,” McBride said. “There are a lot of things to consider before a company can fully integrate everything with IIoT, and it may not make sense for every company. From the technologist point of view, the possibilities are endless, but the value proposition is difficult at this point.”