Manufacturing is undergoing a digital revolution. All types of machinery—old and new—is being embedded with sensors, switches, and intelligent controls to generate data and send it over the Internet, all in the service of making factories smarter. It’s the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
A huge amount of useful data is trapped in factory-floor machines. If captured, the data could be applied to improve operations, reduce costs, and make for a safer workplace. The ability to predict when a machine needs servicing instead of waiting until it breaks down, for example, could reduce overall maintenance costs by about 30 percent, and also could lead to nearly 70 percent fewer breakdowns, according to an IIoT report from Accenture, a global management consulting company.
“The idea behind IIoT is to connect independent things—machines, robots, and humans—and use that intelligence to get much more value from them together than you can individually,” says IEEE Member Anurag Garg, founder of Dattus, in Indianapolis, a company that helps manufacturing facilities collect, manage, visualize, and analyze data from disparate sources.
“Data from the machines is there for the taking because new technologies are able to capture it,” says Senior Member David Durocher, global industry manager for mining, metals, and minerals at Eaton, in Cleveland. The power management company provides energy-efficient solutions that help its customers effectively manage electrical, hydraulic, and mechanical power more efficiently, safely, and sustainably. The company’s products include intelligent power solutions like smart equipment and components. “The data and analytics around the electronics in the equipment is helping not only to solve problems in the electrical space but also of entire systems.” Durocher is the 2018 IEEE Division II delegate-elect/director-elect.
Attempts to make factories more intelligent are nothing new. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems have been on factory floors for years. Through networked data communications and graphical user interfaces, they gather data on the processes, send it to computers, and issue commands to connected devices. But SCADA systems don’t “talk” to other systems, like logistics or production, nor is the data that SCADAs generate analyzed in any meaningful way.
“Most people think the IIoT is the sensors and data on the SCADA dashboard, but that’s just scratching the surface,” Garg says. “The value of IIoT comes from what you do with that data.”
Imagine an autonomous assembly line that can automatically reconfigure itself to produce products in small batches because it can be connected to other systems that include sales, inventory, and delivery.
“Companies have always had access to the data, but they had to develop the software to give the data value. That took a lot of time and testing,” says Robert Fenton, a product line manager at an Eaton facility in Milwaukee. Fenton also helps set up IIoT systems for the company’s customers. “In the long term the programs were a good idea,” he says, “but in the short term, factory owners just wanted to get their processes up and running.”
WORTH THE PRICE?
The cost to have a large service provider such as General Electric or Siemens install an IIoT system can run into hundreds of thousands if not millions of U.S. dollars. But a startup like Dattus handles smaller installations and charges much less. Manufacturers can also retrofit their equipment themselves with smart sensors and components, or they can buy machines with such features built in.
Eaton, for example, offers on-line partial-discharge sensors that continuously monitor the insulation integrity of medium-voltage equipment so as to identify low-level capacitive discharge activity prior to insulation failure.Similarly, new protective relays on large machines use algorithms to measure high-frequency motor-current signatures to detect cracked or broken rotor bars, firing off an alert before there’s a mechanical failure. What’s more, industrial motor control centers now come equipped with intelligent motor management relays and human-machine interface dashboards. The idea is to optimize productivity by communicating data about system health for plant-wide process control and maintenance.
The return on investment in the smart devices comes from operational efficiencies and workplace safety. Fenton points out, for example, that a smart device in a remote pumping station can alert the maintenance staff when there’s a problem. That eliminates the need for a worker to routinely drive to each location to check on the machines, he says.
Workplace safety is also enhanced, Durocher says. For example, sophisticated motor protection and management relays can reduce the risk of an electrician being exposed to arc flash. That’s because the worker no longer must manually connect instruments to measure power. An arc flash occurs when the insulation or isolation between electrified conductors is no longer sufficient to withstand the voltage between them. A flash can injure anyone too near the equipment.
This article has been updated.