Getting Started with the Internet of Things

If you’re excited about the possibilities of the Internet of Things—or if you just want to be prepared for the future—here are some ideas to get you started.

Matt Newton Director of technical marketing, Opto 22
Matt Newton Director of technical marketing, Opto 22

Let’s start with the basics: The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) intends to connect industrial and manufacturing devices and systems together so we can share valuable data in real time, improve processes, tune systems autonomously, predict system failures before they occur, decrease downtime, reduce costs and, ultimately, increase profit.

With new technologies rising and the cost of technology dropping as quickly as it has over the past several decades, you now have the ability to connect almost anything to a network. You can install low-level sensors and actuators, collect data from those devices, convert it into a routable protocol, send it across the Internet, and push it into a Big Data analytics system—all in near real time.

By doing this, you can gain visibility into your process control systems from across the globe. And that visibility is with you all the time, on your mobile device, no matter where you are.

Considering the extent of IIoT and its related technologies, a good place to start down the IIoT path is to learn about the technologies involved with the IIoT. If you’re coming from the industrial automation side of the OT/IT convergence, it’s a good idea to bone up on your basic networking skills. For example:

  • Learn how Ethernet switches and routers move data across the Internet.
  • Know what an IP address is and understand the potential need for IPv6.
  • Get an overview of various web technologies and programming languages.

You certainly don’t have to be a networking expert, but a general familiarity with these technologies will only make your life easier as the OT/IT convergence picks up momentum. Knowledge of networking will be one of the important new skills that will be required in your organization as IIoT gathers steam. Other key skills include understanding programming languages, architectures and network security.

Because each IIoT application is different—depending on a number of factors—there is no one-size-fits-all solution for developing your IIoT project. However, one of the principal objectives of the IIoT is to increase efficiencies, and that’s a good place to start.

With that in mind, following is a general three-step strategy you can apply for developing your first IIoT project.

  1. Identify potential. Walk around your facility, talk to your operators, and identify laborious manual processes such as pen-and-paper data collection and Excel spreadsheet data entry tasks. Also identify potentially useful data that is currently siloed and unavailable to other systems and business decision-makers. Good examples might be environmental data, production data, or data related to your batch process.
  2. Collect data. Look for opportunities to collect data at an asset or “thing” level. For example, is there a sensor you could install to more closely monitor and log your process? The cost of sensors has come down substantially, allowing increased visibility into all aspects of automation. Instrumenting equipment is the first step to getting enhanced levels of information from the plant, remotely monitoring assets, and analyzing production and reliability.
  3. Centralize and analyze. Identify a way to aggregate the data into a central repository. This might require some type of IoT gateway or protocol converter as well as a database to house the information. Once you’ve centralized the data, you can analyze opportunities to optimize processes. For example, develop a report to cross-analyze your newly found sensor data with production output. Do certain variables in the process relate to a higher or lower yield?

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the potential costs and complexity associated with IIoT applications. To avoid this, remain focused on whether a project will benefit the enterprise by reducing cost or improving quality in order to clearly demonstrate a measurable return on investment.

For example, you could connect a power-monitoring device to your plant’s main power feed and start monitoring power usage. Once you’ve started collecting power monitoring data, over time you’ll be able to determine exactly what it costs in real time to turn on a motor, run a process, or have the building air conditioning set to 78 degrees.

Or perhaps you want a daily report emailed to you showing production count, raw material inventory, and average production time. All of this data can be captured through IIoT technology and brought right to your mobile device.

Another easy project to implement could help you save water. If you’re in charge of the irrigation system at your facility, you could set up a simple intelligent system that checks the weather forecast on a website before turning on the sprinklers. The cost savings in reduced water usage (not to mention the impact on the environment in a dry area) are a great way to justify the cost of your first IIoT project.

Just remember—the IIoT doesn’t have to be complicated. And technologies to accomplish all of these applications are available today, off the shelf.

For more than 40 years, we’ve brought commercial, off-the-shelf technologies to industrial systems all over the world. We pioneered the use of PCs in controls back in the 1980s, Ethernet networking at the I/O level in the 1990s, and machine-to-machine connectivity in the 2000s. Today, we bring systems information to your mobile device with groov, an easy-to-use IIoT tool for developing and viewing mobile operator interfaces to securely monitor and control virtually any automation system, equipment or device.

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