You can implement Internet-based connectivity on older equipment to get smart manufacturing’s benefits of increased visibility, uptime and profitability.
By Jeff Bates, product manager, Kepware
As a Product Manager, I often discuss connectivity challenges with organizations and advise them on how to gather machine data to uncover operational efficiencies. With the business value of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) established and recognized, I speak with more and more organizations evaluating how to implement IIoT initiatives to improve factory performance and stay competitive in today’s global market.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is connectivity. Factory floors often house equipment that may have been installed 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. These industrial assets were built to last, but they lack the Internet-based connectivity required to integrate with today’s modern machines and applications. With promised benefits of increased visibility, uptime and profitability, asset integration is a challenge that must be resolved to build an IIoT ecosystem.
So, where can you start? Fundamentally, there are three strategies: rip-and-replace, best-of-breed third-party solutions (also known as retrofit or wrap-and-extend), and in-house solutions. Each approach has its pros and cons, as follows.
Rip-and-replace swaps legacy equipment with modern, IIoT-enabled machinery.
- Frontline of Technology: Replacing outdated assets confirms an organization has the most up-to-date technology and its full benefits: improved performance, lower power consumption and readiness for next-gen features, such as augmented reality
- Equipment Reliability: Some especially outdated legacy equipment is no longer supported by vendors. This can lead to significant business risks in both the short- and long-term. New machinery means full support from vendors. Organizations that choose this methodology don’t need to worry about assets that are only truly understood by the one close-to-retirement expert.
- Cost: This is the main limitation of a full rip-and replace. Most plant managers and maintenance teams would love to scrap all of their legacy technology and start anew, but the cost of new equipment alone is often enough to make this method unrealistic.
- Time: Rip-and-replace involves a number of time sinks: sourcing (such as developing RFIs and RFPs and vendor negotiations), uninstalling current equipment, installing new equipment and getting appropriate vendor support during the installation phase, retraining employees and more. The time investment required by rip-and-replace is often prohibitive on its own.
Best-of-Breed Third-Party Solutions
Best-of-breed third-party solutions augment legacy machines with IIoT-ready, out-of-the-box connectivity and extend the equipment’s capabilities.
- Speed of Install and Return on Investment (ROI): Best-of-Breed solutions that provide out-of-the-box connectivity to legacy systems can be installed with no interruption to uptime. Built to accommodate a wide variety of legacy protocols, they likely will produce almost immediate results. Although installing third-party sensors can take a little longer than connecting to the automation assets on the machine, new IIoT-ready sensors are designed to be easy to install and use.
- Availability of Expertise: System integrators generally are very familiar with these systems. A local system integrator can guide you through the process — or take it on entirely — at a reasonable cost.
- Bandwidth and Wireless Issues: These solutions can collect huge amounts of data, which requires bandwidth that can result in extra costs. Edge-based processing — which permits down-sampling or summary analytics before the information is sent to an IIoT solution — are often included in these systems to help mitigate this issue.
- System Maintenance: Depending on the number of third-party sensors needed to make connectivity possible, this approach could create some system maintainability issues. Working with a system integrator for implementation or purchasing all sensors from a single vendor who provides support can help with maintenance.
In-house solutions are point solutions customized to the organization and created by internal personnel and technical resources.
- Customization: Often the driving factor of this decision, in-house solutions are infinitely customizable to an organization’s needs. IT and operations teams work together to create usable solutions that access the specific data required to facilitate new IIoT use cases. Using internal resources can also mean enhanced prioritization and installation, as in-house experts know the issues and can pinpoint immediate ways to address them.
- Small Scale: This approach often starts small. For example, a user could gather data from a legacy machine using a Raspberry Pi-type device and then display that data on a local human-machine interface (HMI) using a web service. This can be a great proof-of-concept project that is then extended to other machines, cells, workstations and lines. For organizations that need to be convinced of IIoT ROI, this method can help mobilize internal support.
- Internal Knowledge: After a legacy asset is connected, that data needs somewhere to go. Collecting data is one challenge, but displaying it, analyzing it, or otherwise turning the data into actionable intelligence in a timely and useful manner is a whole other issue. Technicians that are able to solve all of these issues are generally hard to come by.
- Maintenance and Experience: As soon as any IIoT solution’s value becomes fully apparent, departments and personnel will want to try new and innovative use cases. An in-house solution will always need to be enhanced and will require troubleshooting. The organization that asks an internal team to develop an in-house IIoT solution and then move on to other tasks does so at their own peril. In-house experts are often good at maintaining one type of connectivity — but can’t easily scale beyond initial goals and often have limited knowledge of the organization-wide benefits of IIoT.
Worth a Look
By integrating your legacy equipment with modern assets, you can implement IIoT solutions and make smarter business decisions.
Kepware, a PTC business developing industrial connectivity software, is a participating EncompassTM Product Partner in the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetworkTM program. The company develops software that connects diverse industrial automation devices and software applications through one platform to provide the connectivity businesses require for smart manufacturing and IIoT initiatives.
The Journal From Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is published by Putman Media, Inc.