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Starting a revolution with smart devices

15 July 2019

Mike Loughran discusses the migration path for introducing smart devices to a legacy system to enable IIoT. 

There can be little argument that the era of The Internet of Things (IoT) has arrived. Today. We all own several smart devices – so it comes as no surprise to find that there are now more smart devices in the world than there are people. By the end of 2019, according to Statista, there will be some 26.66 billion connected devices in use. Fast forward three or four years and that number is expected to double again. 

For industry, this rate of change is outpacing the more traditional lifecycle of technology. However, the ‘Things’ of the Industrial IoT are having a big effect on just about every aspect of every sector in industry. 

For industry, the IIoT is revolutionising several key areas, including:
Maintenance – with data enabled improvements in reducing planned and unplanned downtime through predictive and prescriptive maintenance approaches, as well as training and application improvements through Augmented Reality and Digital Twin technologies.
Output/throughput – Data from devices is helping to identify and resolve bottlenecks as well as optimise almost every aspect of production.
Supply chain – Connected devices and systems can drastically improve the supply chain in both directions, allowing more timely raw material delivery, less inventory, and tracking and tracing of output to optimise management further down the supply chain to clients and customers.
Design – with the advances possible through Digital Twin technologies, a fully connected enterprise can have a ‘digital double’ to aid design and product changeovers as well as predict further maintenance and help with training staff.
• Agility and flexibility – connected enterprises that feature some or all of the above functionality can help industry managers to reduce change-over times for different products, implement new lines or processes and reduce the time it takes to bring new products or methods to reality.

So, what about those lifecycles? Of course, industry managers are not going to discard existing plant and start fresh to reap the benefits promised by IIoT but it is important that every replacement, upgrade or capital investment into an industrial facility is now done as part of an industry 4.0 strategy. There are few companies currently operating in industry who have not started this journey – yet there still remains a number of questions about the potential benefits of such devices, especially when the connectivity of the legacy equipment the new devices must work with is limited. The bad news for companies that do not have an industry 4.0 strategy is that time is running out; remaining competitive with outdated approaches and legacy equipment will become impossible.

The good news is that the benefits of IIoT devices are as numerous as the applications for them. Every industrial facility will be improved by a connected enterprise approach that places a premium on the open transfer of data within the enterprise. Similarly, most devices now available have the capability to be connected, even if the legacy systems and equipment they are being used with is not yet able to make full use of them.

There is no magic bullet. Few companies have the luxury of starting over with a greenfield site that uses cutting edge equipment in a connected way from day one. The migration path for most businesses is a strategy that introduces more and more connectivity over a period of time, often starting with pilot projects around specific processes.

Importantly, beyond the technology and devices themselves, the digital transformation culture is vital to a successful implementation of IIoT. Resolving the issues of legacy equipment, finding what works best for the company and gaining the competitive advantages that come with successful implementation often comes down to the human element. Technology at its best, expands human possibility – so enabling people working in a digital environment is really at the heart of a successful approach. As much as the devices – the ‘Things’ of IIoT have immense potential, it still takes people, relationships and good management to unlock this.

Mike Loughran is CTO UK & Ireland at Rockwell Automation.

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