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Now is the time for manufacturers to map out an IIoT plan

Here are the questions manufacturers need to ask themselves about their current and future infrastructure if they want to migrate to the industrial IoT.

The introduction of the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will bring significant changes to manufacturing organizations, their physical facilities, customer and supplier relationships, and the information systems that support efficient operations. Most visible -- and the physical and technical basis of IIoT -- is the introduction of smart devices, the networking and data management facilities in the plant and throughout the supply chain, and the integration of IIoT's big data into operational processes.

The first issues that manufacturers must address include developing a vision and defining the infrastructure needed to support the integration of existing facilities with new technologies. After those are in place, the organization can put together an implementation plan and timetable for the transition to the new world of IIoT.

Developing an IIoT vision and plan

What will you do with IIoT? How will it change your business and generate benefits?

IIoT is really all about visibility. Inexpensive connected sensors and smart devices track activities and gather data that is passed through the Internet, cellular networks and local networks for access by analytics tools and enterprise software. There's no question that increased visibility can transform your business but only if you use the data effectively.

Do your research. Talk to IIoT technology suppliers and implementation experts. Read everything you can find about how IIoT and big data are being integrated into manufacturing organizations and how it supports efficiency while helping to improve, operations and improved customer service. Once you have the vision, you can start mapping out what technologies to implement; when, where and how to bring them into your current structure; and what additional supporting infrastructure you'll need, including networking and communications, data storage and management, analytics technologies, and links into your operational systems.

Out with the old?

One concern that is likely on your list of things to address early on is what to do about the plant technology already in place. You most likely have programmable controllers, shop-floor devices of various kinds and a local network that supports manufacturing execution. Can these devices and facilities form the basis for your IIoT-enabled shop? Or can they at least participate alongside the newly installed, state-of-the-art IIoT infrastructure? Or must they be discarded, to be replaced by newer technology built for the IIoT world?

There's no simple, universal answer to these questions, but they must be addressed. The first two steps above -- vision and plan -- necessarily precede any assessment of the suitability of existing technology. You may be tempted to let your current technology drive, or at least influence, your IIoT plans. Resist the temptation. You don't want the limitations of existing technology assets to constrain your future IIoT success. Existing equipment represents "sunk costs" -- those investments are in the past. It would be nice to continue reaping benefits from those past investments but that should be considered a bonus, not a requirement.

Once you know what your future network and environment will be, you can conduct a survey of existing sensors, controllers, databases, interfaces, analytical tools, and operational system (ERP, manufacturing execution system) needs, along with their integration capabilities. The lingua franca of IIoT is TCP/IP, the language of the Internet and the most common protocol found in plant-level, Ethernet networks. That's the good news: Your connected devices are likely to be able to communicate in your proposed IIoT environment. The bad news includes:

  • Limited functionality. Devices may not be able to collect all the data envisioned for your new network functionality or may not be able to perform the functions required in response to network signals.
  • Data format issues. Proprietary protocols and formats may present obstacles to participation in the new network. Translation and custom interfacing may be an option, but that presents obstacles (limited functionality, delays in making data available and continuing maintenance requirements for custom interfaces) that you might find hard to overcome.
  • Opportunities to interface or piggyback new technologies to fill the gaps may be limited, impractical or too costly.

Don't be discouraged. You may indeed find a place in your new connected smart factory for much of your current equipment. In any case, you need to figure out what can be preserved, what can be enhanced and what must be replaced. These determinations will have a significant impact on your overall budget, timing and implementation path on your way to the factory of the future in the brave new world of IIoT.

Next Steps

Take a quiz on machine-to-machine technology

Read an FAQ on M2M

See a guide to connectivity for manufacturers

This was last published in January 2016

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