Is the Internet of Things (IoT) just another fancy buzzword like Ideate, Internet 2.0, Big Data, Agile, or Digital Productivity? Or is it a concept that we can truly benefit from? What I find interesting is the paradox that while only half of the people I talk with have heard of it, when we begin to discuss what it means and could do, nearly everyone understands and most are using and applying the concepts already.
What is the Internet of Things? I define it as electronic devices connected to a network so that they can communicate and control (or enable us to control) other things. For example, you can now use a smartphone app to adjust the temperature setting of your house in frigid Minnesota from the cozy sunroom of an Arizona condo. How about smart TVs? Or Apple watches? These all are electronic devices connected to a network that can share and communicate data. That is IoT.
What could this look like? I recently watched a video in which a fellow described how an electronic bracelet monitors his sleep cycles. Over time, it discerns his patterns of deep or shallow sleep and determines the optimal time to wake him up. Here’s where IoT kicks in. When it’s about time to wake up, the device begins to vibrate and at the same time, signals his bedside lamp to slowly illuminate the bedroom, so there is no sudden flash of light. It then simultaneously notifies the kitchen coffee maker to start brewing his morning cup of joe. It tells the thermostat to adjust to the day-time temperature. I’m more of an alarm clock guy myself, but you get the point. It’s IoT in action and it can be very powerful in our lives as consumers.
The industrial IoT (IIoT) operates from the same basic concept: it connects a network of devices to communicate and control actions and activities. But there is a substantial difference. If the sleep device fails to turn on the lamp or brew the coffee, the sleepy end-user might merely oversleep. He can use his fingers to flip on the lamp and then stumble into the kitchen to push the brew button. Businesses, on the other hand, require better accountability. A failure of an industrial IoT application might short-circuit production in the best case; in the worst, someone could get hurt. Industry demands stronger security and reliability.
Engineers often see the IIoT as a feedback control loop: See. Decide. Act. We see or measure something. We use that input to make a decision, and then act on our decision. This is something we all do every day while driving our cars. We use visual inputs to turn or adjust our speed. IIoT enables us to digitally automate this. So, systems are running the cycle or at least they can provide us the input. Ultimately, it’s a feedback loop.
Some companies have been doing this for years. Back in the ‘90s, it was more like the intranet of things. Companies performed these functions on their internal networks. UPS, for example, for years has digitally monitored its trucks and deliveries. Emerson, a company I used to work for, innovated a concept back in the ‘90s called Plantweb™, an internal network that enabled managers to make smarter and quicker decisions by simultaneously capturing and connecting data all throughout the plant. It was local to the intranet of their business.
Today, the internet enables companies to share data outside their walls. As an example, an oil and gas refinery in Minnesota could be controlled from a company command center in Houston. Those operators can monitor what’s happening at their facility in Minnesota and make decisions affecting the process like opening and closing valves, or turning systems on and off.
An effective application of the IIoT depends on two essential features. The first is its ability to “sense” data. What can be sensed or measured? We can measure all kinds of things: position, looping, temperature, moisture, humidity, sound, acoustics, chemicals, gas, flow, pressure, liquid levels, electricity, acceleration, vision, optics, and light. Second, we have to apply it to our businesses. But how do we do that? Enterprise Minnesota approaches manufacturing in four ways: Strategy for Growth, Continuous Improvement, ISO Management Systems and Talent and Leadership. Every critical function in your business lives somewhere in this diagram. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to see that the tighter, the better aligned, the better fit there are between the different pieces of the puzzle, the stronger the business. Using this framework, the best place to start is with Strategy.
Strategy for Growth is where your overall business strategy, revenue growth strategy and other growth resources live like finances and customer management. I always start with strategy because it is the way you discover why you’re doing something. Trying to exploit the capabilities of the latest, greatest super technology won’t be worth much until a business can find alignment to its strategic goals. We need to connect an innovation like this to things like growth, cost reduction, quality improvement, personnel safety or a myriad of other goals that you might have for how your business operates and to make sure it’s performing well.
A great quote from the Art of War by General Sun Tzu suggests the importance of starting with strategy. He says: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” We need strategy and tactics. However, this suggests a definite order. Could we get lucky by diving in with the IIoT concept in a random part of our process? Sure. However, if we want to ensure a successful outcome, we will start with an alignment to our strategic goals.
Continuous Improvement involves lean processes, increasing productivity and reducing waste.
IIoT can apply broadly to lean principles and applications. It might help increase productivity, reduce wastes of time, energy, people, materials, equipment, or motion. I want to focus our thoughts on a couple of ideas for automating and controlling our processes. Specifically, think about how IIoT can help increase production capacity by automating repetitive tasks. The days when automation displaced workers are well behind us. Today, automation is needed to supplement our workforce so we can grow and reach the next level. This is emphasized in a couple statistics that were recently released. For every one job that is currently open in Minnesota there are 1.1 people available to fill those jobs. And that’s not 1.1 skilled people. Another report predicts that there are 60,000 unfilled jobs in Minnesota today. That number is predicted to climb to as many as 280,000 within five years.
When we automate repetitive tasks, we not only increase our productivity, we also improve job satisfaction of our workforce because they don’t have to do that manual task anymore.
We can also use IIoT to decrease waste and increase output by monitoring the performance of our processes. This is oversimplified, I know, but in the past, we controlled our processes at intervals or maybe through a QC check, certainly not in real time. We’d run X number of our products or do X number of our processes, and at some point later on, we check it out. Today, IIoT might enable us to automate some of that control in a way that provides real-time monitoring. We can immediately detect when we go out of spec; we can pause, fix and continue. We increase our output and decrease our waste by implementing this type of control.
So, what are some ways that we can use IIoT to automate control? Robotics is one answer and utilizing more sensors is another. Sensors can help measure things like temperature, pressure, depth, shape, and light—you name it. Measuring things related to our processes will provide critical information to help us make quality decisions.
What do we do with that data? Many manufacturers use Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES)—JobBOSS is one example—to connect the business program to machines. Dashboards can provide real-time data, reports, and feedback so we can make those real-time decisions. A smaller-scale concept is Supervision Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA), a closed loop system that connects machines and controls designed for remote control. Both examples allow us to gather data into a system that enables us to exert control over our process.
ISO Management Systems, at least the new 9001:2015 standard, emphasize essential management tools and risk mitigation. It explores how we measure, monitor and manage our businesses as well as how we identify risks that could jeopardize the business. Business management systems like ISO provide a comprehensive view of our entire business. I’m going to focus our thoughts here on monitoring and predicting. From a monitoring perspective, let’s look at how we use energy in our businesses. And for predicting let’s talk about how that might affect the maintenance work that we do.
In the past, our monthly utility bills provided about the only way to track our energy consumption. And of course, that would alert us if we were using or wasting more energy than we expected. We could then investigate and might find that we are wasting energy through a leak in the system. Today, IIoT sensors can monitor energy usage in real time, enabling us to recognize when we are losing, wasting or leaking energy. And that can save a lot of money.
IIoT also provides significant improvements to the way manufacturers maintain their equipment in ways that increase uptime, decrease downtime, and reduce overall maintenance costs. Previously and maybe today, we perform weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual preventive maintenance on our machines according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. This is great because it is predictable. We can forecast costs for labor and parts and plan for downtime. Today, we can monitor critical components of our machines through IIoT. We can replace maintenance parts when they need to be replaced, rather than because a maintenance schedule suggests it. What would the positive impact be if we can reduce one maintenance circuit out of the whole year?
Sensors again provide significant enablers for the IIoT. Sensors can measure temperature, pressure, flow, and vibration. They can also work in tandem with an asset management system, a software program that allows all these signals to be fed into dashboards with real time reporting, allowing management of those devices from a central location. This can work with a wide variety of devices, including motors, bearings, air compressors, and control valves, among others. By continuously measuring the vibration of a motor, for example, we can identify when it starts to deviate from its standard state. Using IIoT, we can measure the standard temperature of a bearing; when it spikes upward, it’s time to replace it. It can also monitor the pressure of a compressor or the position of a valve. These are all measurements that can be monitored. It helps avoid unnecessary maintenance, and also prevents the critical failure of a component that can take down an entire line.
The idea of monitoring critical components is a key focus of ISO 9001:2015’s objective of mitigating risk.
Talent and Leadership is all about how we attract, invest in and retain people, the lifeblood of our business. The IIoT can affect people in a myriad of ways. Employee safety and keeping a safe environment are a couple of things that jump out at me with some immediate value.
An eyewash station is an example of a piece of safety equipment common to many manufacturing facilities. With that said, this is a piece of equipment that you always want to have yet hope never gets used. If an employee is using an eye wash station it is because something bad happened to them. In the past, we may only know if this is happening or happened if we are lucky enough to have a co-worker witness the problem and jump to their rescue. The potential delay in medical attention could significantly hurt this employee.
What if we have a sensor on that device and get an alert, multiple alerts maybe, in a lot of different ways so that we can react quickly to that need? We can get them the medical attention they need. In addition, how does this affect our safety records or recording system? In the past, we may have used a manual system. We record the incident in a spreadsheet or something and because a human is doing it, there’s an opportunity for error. But what if we’re doing that digitally? Now we’ve got an automatic recording and reliable safety metrics. When OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] comes to visit us the next time, it’s probably better to have a reliable set of data where we know what happened than data that maybe isn’t so reliable.
The IIoT can also help monitor, react to and report on things about the environment from a safety perspective. It is a given that we all follow the rules to maintain safety around hazardous chemicals or gases we use in our facilities. By using the IIoT we can react faster and minimize negative regulatory impacts.
Think about how we use pressure relief valves. Several years ago, I heard about a facility that monitored a safety relief valve by putting a sock on it. A supervisor would walk by once every eight-hour shift and see if the sock was still on there. If it wasn’t, they’d mark it down. Well, the Pollution Control Agency is going to come in, and they’re going to say, “Let’s see. So, at eight o’clock, you said it was good, but then you didn’t at four o’clock. We have to assume that for eight hours it was off.” This will equate to a significant fine.
The IIoT technology can help connect and monitor the device that will determine how long a pressure relief valve was open. In the previous example, we have to assume eight hours while in reality, it may have been only 45 seconds or less. The monitor provides proof. Sensors, again, are key to this success.
I heard that someone described their plant by four safety measurement points, the Four Ds: distant, dangerous, dirty, and dull. These are useful categories for thinking about how to deploy the IIoT. We can invest in a $1,000 sensor to keep track of the activity and data and let employees be more productive and safer.
To summarize, the IIoT is more than just a fancy buzzword. It is a powerful concept that can have a significant impact on the bottom line of our business. Start with your strategy and make sure it aligns with your goals. From there, think about ways to automate control, monitor risk, and keep your people safe. I would wager, if you put your mind to it, you can find dozens of ways to apply this powerful idea to your business.
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a presentation made by Steve Haarstad at Century College.
Steve Haarstad is a business consultant at Enterprise Minnesota. He helps manufacturers understand how to grow their top-line revenue and strengthen their leadership culture. Before joining Enterprise Minnesota, Haarstad served as global customer support manager, global education manager, and marketing training manager for Emerson Automation Solutions in Eden Prairie and Rosemount. He holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Michigan Technological University and an MBA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.