The Internet of Things may be a concept of relatively recent vintage, but the reality is that the technologies that enable the Internet of Things (IoT) are already here. That's most likely the reason why the IoT has captured the imagination of so many businesses—as the benefits are not dependent on some future technology development. Instead, it’s a matter of smartly applying the technologies available today.
“It’s important to realize that we’re not starting from scratch with the Internet of Things at Schneider Electric,” says Steve Garbrecht, vice president of software product marketing, Schneider Electric. “We’ve already moved from connecting a few devices to connecting many things. We’re now on our way to anywhere, any time, any thing connectivity.”
One example Garbrecht points out to illustrate how the Internet of Things concept is already playing out in industry is in the use of smart assets for maintenance and
“We’re tracking data collected from different types of equipment and connecting it to the cloud, where we can apply analytics on it and put it into context,” he says. “The information can then be used to generate a workflow for maintenance departments so the asset can be properly maintained based on its current operating realities. Reliability engineers can also mine this data to improve overall maintenance processes.”
Garbrecht cites Schneider Electric customer Ash Grove Cement and its use of Avantis asset management software as a prime example of a customer already experimenting with this type of connectivity and data analysis. Ash Grove’s initial goals were to “automate maintenance data collection at each facility for a well-defined enterprise asset management process to support equipment performance reliability,” says Garbrecht. “They wanted to improve the availability and utilization of production assets and develop a standardized solution for each of the company’s nine production facilities, all while maintaining production.”
Using Avantis to monitor and manage the production and maintenance operations, Ash Grove was able to reduce its inventory costs by $2 million in the first year using the software. They were also able to ensure compliance with the EPA’s Portland Cement Maximum Achievable Control Technology (PC MACT) regulation, thereby minimizing the potential loss of $3,000 per hour for every hour the kiln is offline.
Looking at how Schneider Electric is approaching the Industrial Internet of Things in light of the Invensys acquisition earlier this year, Garbecht explained that the company’s Digital Services group, which is part of the Global Solutions organization and includes the Software Group, is driving Schneider Electric’s focus here. “Digital Services will help customers mine information and use it in an IoT environment,” says Garbrecht. “Much of Schneider Electric’s work in this area to date has focused on Smart Cities, but Industrial IoT is now also a major facet of the company’s focus and Wonderware is bringing many of the software capabilities that will support this.”
Some of the specific areas in which Wonderware software will play a major role in Schneider Electric’s Industrial IoT capabilities include:
Process Control and Date Capture—through use of the hardware-agnostic Wonderware HMI/SCADA platform, built on Microsoft .NET framework, along with highly scalable, lower-cost I/O modules.
Connectivity—using IP-based industrial networks, virtualization and cloud computing capabilities, mobile device access, and streaming video.
Contextualization—give meaning to captured data to create work processes and determine how processes are managed over a number of machines, systems, and people.
Garbrecht points out that all these capabilities were technically possible to achieve before the advent of the Internet of Things concept. “But it’s the IT and OT convergence that is taking control theory across the entire company. IT is leveraging all the operational opportunities from connectivity, automation, and data analysis points of view. IT services are enabling us to better use and understand the operational data, and find more value for people throughout the enterprise.”
Though the possibilities for the Internet of Things are nearly unlimited, the concept is not without its challenges. Garbrecht notes Schneider Electric is focused on addressing some major challenges, including:
Security. As more devices and systems are connected as part of various IoT initiatives, security becomes not just the responsibility of IT, but a requirement for everyone in terms of following policies and procedures to minimize the potential for security breaches.
Scalability and real-time information. “These two are tightly related because of the way the Internet uses open networks today is not efficient for IoT big-data solutions and all their real-time data points that need to be communicated and managed,” Garbrecht says.
Device constraints. “Not every device in a plant is smart or can be made smart, nor can it necessarily be connected yet,” Garbrecht says. “Devices have to evolve and we’ll have to work around and with those issues as we help roll out IoT projects.”
Mobile assets. “This is a major data capture, management, and connectivity issue with assets moving around a facility and making connections that are also moving around. On top of that you have all the people who are moving around receiving information; they’re also assets in the system.”
“To date, most companies talk about IoT in terms of connectivity,” Garbrecht said. “We are creating the software to deliver contextualized information to customers. It is the ‘people’ factor we are enabling through our software.”