Part 2: Separating Hype from Reality — Exploring #IIoT Real-World Applications

By Brian Oulton and Shane Filer

This article is Part 2 of a previous article, published April 15, 2019, which was titled “The Industrial Internet of Things… IIoT or I(D)IoT?” In the first article, we picked a bit of fun at the current IIOT buzzword craze, but also explored to see what was reality and what was hype — are there some technologies that are advancing decision making, boosting efficiency, enhancing safety, and helping companies make better decisions? 

In this second part of the article, we wanted to share with you what our customers told us over the past few months as to what trends are driving them to explore and use IIoT technologies, what building blocks and key applications of IIoT are being deployed, and some specific examples of clever ways that they are using the technologies to boost their industrial intelligence.  

What are the trends driving application of IIoT technologies?

  • Scarcity of experts / skilled workforce shortages from baby boomer retirements, LEAN initiatives, and economic dips have trimmed the knowledge of the workforce significantly. The baby boomer retirement is the big one — there are six million Baby Boomers in the US, but while 80% of them still work, about 10,000/day retire and in three years (2022) only 40% of Boomers will still be working. There is a massive vacuum of knowledgeable people retiring at just about every company out there. 
  • Increased global competition challenges us all to not just to build a great machine or process, but to be smarter about using all of the intelligence and resources we have to compete.
  • Evolution of technology makes much of this possible. Smart devices, cloud-based storage, industrial-grade networks with huge throughput, reliable wireless and cellular communication, simplified data analytics, and a proliferation of apps for Android and IoS devices — these were all new, novel, or non-existent just 5-10 years ago.

What are some of the building blocks of IIoT technologies that customers are using?

  • Intelligent, networked devices that gather critical data 
  • Edge Control or Edge Networks that can gather the data from the intelligent devices and then either make local decisions or else move the data quickly elsewhere 
  • Inexpensive, high capacity data storage (often cloud-based) with computing power for a centralized location for all of the gathered data 
  • Analytics software to make sense of the huge amounts of data from different sources, often with Artificial Intelligence (AI) or data visualization to centralized decision-makers

What are some of the generalized applications of IIoT that customers are deploying?

  • Remote access to machines using traditional software configuration & monitoring tools (and now video and virtual reality) to make remote and on-site servicing much quicker and easier. One customer commented that their experts can now help 20 customers in the time it used to help 1 because of travel. 
  • Data dashboards that are easy to configure & modify that will display on mobile commercial devices to give quick visualization (and sometimes control) to operators and management. This can give operators the ability to be seeing the same information that used to be available only in a control room while they are actually on the plant floor, or even at home. They can change a chemical dosing pump, check a tank level, view influent vs effluent, and any desired process data point. One operator did humorously comment, “Great stuff, although I’d really appreciate NOT having that smart alarm at 2 AM telling me that my plant was running just fine.”
  • Predictive Analytics and reports to improve business insights relating to process safety, plant efficiency, machine utilization, and many other items. These are now available in real-time, helping management adjust schedules, inventory, personnel schedules, etc. with little to no time waste, instead of waiting for a report from the prior day (or sometimes week) to run and trying to anticipate what will be needed next. One automation company executive said, “Decisions can become far more proactive than reactive.”     

What are some actual, real-world examples of IIoT that customers are deploying?

Brian and I talked to a variety of different companies and people from various industries, and came away with five that we felt told the stories well of people who were actively exploring the technology building blocks, or had already deployed them in some highly useful way. Here are those five:

Example #1 from a Tank Builder for Various Industries:

A tank manufacturer had been building tanks for many decades — all they have ever sold is tanks. Many of their customers use tanks for their fuel oil for their businesses or home. The company realized that people weren’t buying their tanks because they needed a tank – they needed fuel on a regular basis for their heating applications. The company has a new product that sells not just the tank, but also a service that provides a level sensor / cell modem combo which feeds back the level of the fuel oil into a cloud-server. The information regularly updates a website that posts bid requests to fuel oil suppliers such that when a tank is low, the lowest bidder for that tank can win the right to refill that fuel oil tank.

Example #2 from a Process Control Automation Executive to the Oil/Gas Industry:

The upstream oil/gas industry currently has thousands of wells and terabytes of data from sensors that have been put into place. This company was using analytics to identify and focus the company’s efforts on the 200 or so wells that are the highest producers in order to maximize profitability and boost longevity.  They asked, “What patterns do we need to be watching for out of the terabytes of daily data we are collecting, and how can we quickly get it into the hands of someone who can make a critical decision with that data? The sheer volume and veracity of data we receive is huge… where we focus is how do we get rid of the noise in the system to empower an operator to react in a safe manner but in a tight time frame, and getting in front of events before they happen.”  Analytics helps to get rid of the extraneous noise, identify patterns they couldn’t otherwise see, and enable operators to act in the best interests of company safety and timeline goals.

Example #3 from a Natural Gas Process Skid Builder:

A gas process skid builder with installations spread across the US had struggled to hire enough skilled support personnel close to their installations to meet the fast response needed by their customers. In theory, their small group of experts could service 95% of the issues without travel using remote software, but obtaining network accounts and credentials at hundreds of customers with different policies, technologies and procedures wasn’t practical. They installed edge gateway devices between their in-plant equipment and a cloud application designed to provide the experts with secure remote access to their equipment, through each corporate network infrastructure, or via cellular or Wi-fi networking using their standard programming and monitoring software. The solution satisfied in-plant engineering, maintenance & IT, was easy and inexpensive to deploy and resulted in much improved service levels.

Example #4 from a Water Utility Engineering Design Firm:

We spoke to an executive who has spent considerable time on both the plant side and the engineering side about what he sees is happening right now with IIoT technologies in that industry (which is traditionally very slow to change). The answer was pretty surprising — “There are a few people in this industry thinking very innovatively about the integration of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Building Information Modeling (BIM) and overall syystem modeling. What we see more and more of is a realization of the ability to integrate data into asset management regimes. Our utility clients are very involved with using GIS and data collectors integrated with their work order management systems and modeling efforts.” To paraphrase, the water industry is getting much smarter and deploying many IIOT tools when designing or retrofitting plants such that critical geographically-specific data gathering, transferring and analyzing are at the heart of the design.

Example #5 from a Liquid Fuel Pipeline Company:

The pipeline companies often have a fleet of pumps (or compressors for gas pipelines) that can number into the thousands per company. They have a fixed set of specialists who periodically go to each site to monitor the health of the pumps, but that only provides data for that particular moment in time. Rarely do the pumps fail or even show signs of wear exactly when they happen to be looking at them, and specialists are getting harder to find (and even harder to find those who are willing to travel 80 hours a week to try to make it out to check out every single pump). In this case, the industry as a whole is pushing toward localized gathering of data that feeds into the cloud, after which software can use AI or feed focused data to a centralized specialist who can proactively make decisions on pump health in a more real-time basis.

All five of these customers had one of the drivers we discussed push them to make changes in the ways that they did things, with the end result being new IIoT technological advances that should impact the entire industry. 

Thank you to all of you who participated in these two articles, and for all of our readers!  How can YOUR company utilize these technologies and concepts to accomplish more? Both of the authors would love to discuss your industrial business challenges to see if there is a way we can help you – send either of us an email to continue the discussion!  

Shane Filer is the general manager of a northeast USA technical company (Neal Systems Inc – www.nealsystems.com) that represents, engineers, and services industrial products like #SchneiderElectric #Foxboro, #DraegerSafety, #Eurotherm, and #MetrixVibration to various process industries. His team provides solutions that help companies accomplish what this article is all about.  

Brian Oulton spent over 30 years driving strategy & leading initiatives with Rockwell Automation, Cisco, Belden/Hirschmann and others. Today, Brian is president of Business Sense LLC (www.business-sense-llc.com) and is focused on helping automation & tech companies who need to grow, fix, or change their Sales and Marketing processes, organizations, tools, and activities to achieve sustainable double-digit growth.

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