Are You Ready for the Industrial Internet of Things?

April 15, 2016
And do you need to be? Form a committee and compare your plant's unique needs against the possibilities.

Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and related phrases may be rooted in marketingspeak, but they're emblematic of real changes occurring in how data is gathered and information shared in industrial production. Wired and wireless networks, cloud computing and analyses of huge volumes of data are part of IIoT in the process industries.

They all speak to the need for greater bandwidth, cloud-based applications, better and more comprehensive connectivity, greater storage capacity and the benefits of "big data." These new capabilities have been championed by the information technology community. They certainly are the harbingers of what is possible. But in the real world of our food & beverage plants, are they for certain the future? Or just another RFID?

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.

Some of these technologies could result in significant advancements for many companies. But a great idea that doesn't have the applicability needed to make it mainstream will not be successful. "The devil is in the details,” and every company's, every plant's, details will be different. Diving is in not a decision to be taken lightly … or single-handedly.

So form a committee. 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.

Many items 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 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. 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.

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