5 Ways to Leverage Connectivity for Better Performance

Using IIoT increases efficiency, decreases downtime

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Industrial facilities around the globe are ramping up their automated operations, linking equipment together to gain benefits such as improved efficiency and reduced downtime. A growing number of manufacturing companies are linking their facilities together, using communications collectively dubbed the Industrial Internet of Things. What are some of the biggest impacts as a result?

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Shared learning. IIoT technology lets companies gain the benefits that come when facilities throughout the enterprise share information. For example, downtime and efficiency can also be improved, while knowledge gained in one plant can be quickly cloned in sister facilities. Global connectivity also brings a number of advantages associated with so-called big data – the huge amount of available information helps provide predictive maintenance, enhanced diagnostics, remote troubleshooting, reduced downtime and increased efficiency. Often, technicians can use this information to find out why recurring problems occur, then figure out how to prevent them.

Gaining these benefits is feasible and practical for all but the smallest manufacturing companies. However, achieving these goals requires planning and attention to detail.

Focused data analysis. Data management is one of the parameters that must be handled wisely to provide the best results. For some tasks, like collecting data for predictive maintenance, it’s useful to gather all the data that’s available.

But for many jobs, it’s more efficient to cherry pick data from the huge volume of data created by all the equipment operating on the factory floor. In these instances, it’s important to set triggers that will start recording information deemed to be important. It will be much simpler for humans and machines to understand smaller amounts of data.

When there are common problems, it’s fairly straightforward to determine when issues will occur. Triggers can be set to gather any amount of data preceding these common issues. In some instances, a few thousand data points may be captured. In others, a few minutes preceding the trigger will be stored. Having this data readily available will simplify the job of troubleshooters called in to fix problems. This approach can also reduce storage costs and bills from cloud service providers.

Companies can also reduce their costs by only using the cloud for temporary storage. Data can be stored in the cloud for fairly short timeframes, then shifted to the company’s storage system. It’s usually much cheaper to keep historical data within the company’s walls. This sort of historical data can be useful for many types of analysis, but it typically won’t be accessed very often.

More actionable data. Once companies decide how much data they need to store, they need to figure out how to turn it into actionable information. There are a number of tools that can make this job fairly straightforward. For example, Mitsubishi Electric Automation tools include diagnostic functions that help users monitor equipment in real time.

These tools provide operators with a wealth of information. Users can keep tabs on network health, quickly spotting issues like broken cables or configuration errors. Operators can also examine PLCs, servos, drives and other gear, gathering data on the usage and health.

Productivity associated with mobile access. When plants are connected to the IIoT, all this data can be readily available to employees regardless of where they are. Authorized workers can connect from home or other remote sites and get the same information that they would get if they were on the worksite.

IIoT connectivity can even help workers monitor equipment when they’re in the facility. Today, maintenance technicians must often lug a laptop down to the equipment being examined. It’s not uncommon for them to have some access issues when they attempt to connect and check out the equipment. Connectivity lets them quickly link up to the unit under test and start collecting data, saving the time otherwise spent traipsing around the plant floor.

Inventory control. IIoT connectivity can also help companies manage their consumables. OEMs that sell both machines and related consumables often don’t have much insight about usage patterns for those consumables. When facilities are connected, the OEMs can check production rates to determine when it’s time to send the next batch of goods. Close communication between suppliers and users helps improve just-in-time shipment rates, reducing inventory and handling costs without hindering production.

Architecture Needed to Get There

All this connectivity shines the spotlight on the plant’s networking architecture. Robust architectures that provide reliability and security are mandatory for any facility that's going to be connected to the Worldwide Web. Determinism is an important criterion for most plants.

Bandwidth has to handle the volume of data generated by the plant on its busiest days. Many companies are finding that 100 Mbytes/second Ethernet no longer fulfills this demand, so they’re transitioning to 1 Gbyte/second Ethernet. This huge speed increase will meet the most demanding requirements for the next few years.

Security has also become a huge issue as more industrial facilities are connected to the Internet. The shift to Ethernet has also helped make industrial networks a target for hackers.

Following best practices created for industry is one of the first steps for securing networks. Leveraging the expertise of those who have delved into the details of secure communications will help companies configure networks to minimize their exposure. Putting firewalls in the right locations and making sure gateways aren’t left open are basic security precautions everyone should take.

Network architects also need to provide defense in depth. Using tools that cover many levels of the networking hierarchy helps reduce the possibility that hackers can find vulnerabilities. If intruders do breach the protective barriers, other safeguards can help stymie the hacker’s activities and isolate zones that have been breached.

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