MRO Q&A: Should the Industrial Internet of Things Be on Your Radar?

Our plant maintenance expert suggests: Develop an operational needs plan pertaining to what is being touted -- before you hear any sales presentations -- to see if it makes sense for your company.

Question: I am a plant engineer of a baking operation with responsibilities for two different facilities. I have heard a lot about the next big thing being the industrial internet of things (IIoT) but frankly, I'm not sure what I should be doing, if anything, to get ready for it. Any guidance you can offer would be greatly welcomed.

Answer: The IIoT topic has been front and center for the past year, and there has been a huge amount of hype surrounding its potential capabilities. This topic, along with others -- the need for greater bandwidth, cloud-based applications, better and more comprehensive connectivity, greater storage capacity along with the benefits of big data -- have been in the news over the past year or so.

The introduction of each of these new capabilities has been championed by our friends in the information technologies community. They are the harbingers of what is possible, based upon the development of current technologies. The innovative side of me says, “Let's go for it, sign me up!” But the MRO side of me asks,“ Sign me up for what?”

Some of these technologies could result in some significant infrastructure changes to your existing wiring, HMI connectivity and communication software and hardware, not to mention significant capital and expense dollars.

I am sure that many of these ideas could result in significant advancements for many companies. But a great idea that doesn't have the applicability that is needed to make it mainstream will not be successful. Anyone remember RFID?

Oftentimes, in many areas of operations, new ideas are brought in from outside the organization. A very convincing sales presentation is given, and we are asked to purchase or sign up for them. As we all know, “the devil is in the details.” Every production process and facility is unique unto itself. My guidance: Get mentally ahead of the curve and develop an operational needs plan pertaining to what is being touted, before the sales presentation, to see if it makes sense for your company.

I suggest you put together a cross-functional team of in-house subject matter experts along with thought leaders within your company and go through an exercise called “in a perfect world.” In this exercise review every activity that occurs in a specific production process and list all the items you need in order to achieve an optimization of your operations. Many plants have several different operations within the same location, so start small and develop this list for one specific operation.

There will be many items that will be maintenance-, engineering-, sanitation- and production-related, and they are all valuable, but you are also looking for items needed on a higher level of abstraction. This is why you will need to have some strategic thought leaders on this team.

Once complete, do it for other operations as well. Consolidate your findings and forward your needs to the information technology professionals. I suggest you meet with either your internal IT people or your external trusted provider to discuss your needs. They are much more adept at determining what physical needs will achieve the optimization you need. A baseline internal assessment of current capabilities would be helpful. Some needs may be as simple as adding more sensors/counters or some realtime productivity screens; some will be as difficult as adding or modifying your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. These calls should be left to your IT provider after they fully understand what your needs are and what the current capabilities are.

Once your needs analysis is complete, a priority determination needs to be made relative to other capital requirements the plant may have.

Now you will be prepared to ask the “tough" questions when vendors come to present. I believe if the customer knows what he needs, the probability of the product being successful is greater than having the provider telling the customer what he needs and making the customer make it work. IIoT additions, as well as many other infrastructure needs, should be needs-based, substantiated, cost-justified and generated by the users with sufficient forethought.

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