Putting the Internet of Things Into Practice

With IoT moving past the hype phase and into reality, vendors and system integrators explain how they are using it to bring real-world value to end users.

It was Christmas Day 2015, and an operating engineer for Whitewater Energy was just sitting down to open presents with his family when he got an alert on his smartphone. Pricing for wind energy in Palm Springs, Calif., where a Whitewater wind farm was located, had just gone negative. That meant that, according to market rates, Whitewater would have to pay for the electricity it was producing, rather than getting paid for it—to the tune of $281 per kilowatt hour. Whitewater had to shut down production, and fast, or lose thousands of dollars per hour.

Fortunately for Whitewater, its systems were connected not just to the power grid, but also to the Internet, where production data could be compared to projected market prices for electricity, as short term as five minutes ahead. And, as soon as pricing was forecast to go negative, a smartphone app developed by SCADA Solutions triggered an alert on system operators’ smartphones.

At Windland wind farm in Tehachapi, Calif., Craig VanWagner, CFO and lead system engineer for SCADA Solutions, uses a tablet to monitor and control a nearby wind turbine.​ Source: Opto 22

Companies operating in the volatile California energy market provide an extreme case for the value of the Internet of Things (IoT), where thousands of dollars can be made or lost in minutes and the value of connecting machines used for production to the Internet can be immediately realized. But the value to be gained from this connection extends to just about every other industry as well.

IoT may be a relatively simple concept of connected devices and machines, but the implications are profound. Cisco estimates that IoT has the potential to enable the automation of up to 50 percent of manual processes, which is one reason it’s growing at a furious rate. Another is that it allows operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) to connect, linking process automation with business information, for example, to enable new efficiencies and capabilities.

In light of the benefits, it’s no wonder that a study from Forrester Research and Zebra Technologies found that IoT deployments at large organizations had more than tripled between 2012 and 2014. And a McKinsey report released last year estimates that the global economic value generated by the IoT could top $11 trillion by 2025, or some 11 percent of the world economy. The biggest value, according to McKinsey, will be realized in the manufacturing sector, which will account for about a third of the total.

Realizing the full value of IoT, however, will come to those who make the best use of the data generated—not just those who put the most things on the Internet, Cisco says. Smart deployment decisions point the way.

Starting with the basics

Richard Soley, executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), points to the link between OT and IT as the main value in the IoT. “Right now in the automation world,” he says, “the computers that run the automation systems typically do not talk to the computers that run the manufacturing resource planning or enterprise resource planning systems. Sharing that information is valuable.

Daymon Thompson, automation specialist at Beckhoff Automation, recommends that organizations considering IoT deployments start by defining the business case. “Companies must identify business challenges and real-world use cases that would benefit from implementation of highly connected, data-driven manufacturing solutions,” he says. Only from there, he adds, can managers make intelligent decisions about an IoT implementation.

For example, if the business challenge for a given manufacturing process turns out to be maximizing machine uptime, a good place to start might be an IoT-enabled system that can predict when machines need maintenance and alert technicians before a failure occurs. “These days, some level of mobile device integration for push notifications sent from cloud-connected manufacturing systems is frequently in consideration,” Thompson says.

In short, realizing the benefits of the IoT starts with a good plan. “Developing a plan for the best ways your company can capitalize on these methodologies and technologies will go a long way to ensure sensible allocation of company funds for maximum ROI and a higher-grade impact on operational efficiency,” Thompson says.

Soley identifies four major benefits of connecting automation to the IoT. “If it were easy to connect to your automation system—your PLCs, your operational systems—with your information systems, you could do a better job of: 1) optimizing the use of the factory floor, 2) optimizing the intake of just-in-time delivery, 3) optimizing the just-in-time delivery out the back end of the factory, and 4) making the factory floor more safe because you know exactly what’s going on where.”

Realizing these benefits is the focus of the IIC’s first testbed, for tracking items on a factory floor. “If I know where everything is—the people, the tools, the parts, and the work in progress—I can do a better job manufacturing and I can make the floor safer,” Soley explains.

Consortium member companies Bosch, Cisco, National Instruments and Tech Mahindra launched the Track and Trace Testbed on the factory floor of an aircraft manufacturer in Germany in early 2015. Soley says that the testbed has been a resounding success and that the system that the consortium members built for it will roll out to hundreds of manufacturers in 2016.

Using the system, manufacturers will be able to pinpoint the location of power tools to within an accuracy of 1 meter on the factory floor via Wi-Fi triangulation. The tools will also share usage data with the system to aid worker productivity and to prevent injuries; the tools will shut themselves down if they sense that they are being misused. The developers hope to narrow the margin of error for location data down to 5 cm in future iterations.

Real-world solutions

Energy use monitoring can also be a good place to start an IoT implementation, especially given the continuing sustainability push underway at many companies, according to Keith Blodorn, director of program management—wireless at ProSoft Technology. “Boilers, power meters and chillers typically use special protocols like BACnet and LonWorks,” he says.

Gateways like those provided by ProSoft can transfer data from those machines to a controller. From there, the controller can analyze the data and trigger appropriate actions. “By using the data to effectively manage your energy usage, you can save money while helping decrease your company’s carbon footprint,” Blodorn says.

To enable its smartphone applications to send alerts based on production and pricing data, SCADA Solutions relies on Opto 22’s groov platform, which enables customers to build monitoring and control apps for the web and mobile devices. Groov is seeing action in other kinds of production environments as well.

For example, Chicago-based Packaging Corporation of America, which builds boxes for shipping snack foods, has connected its machines to the Internet to give its managers at plants around the country easy visibility into what’s happening throughout the system.

“They’ve taken this technology and applied it to provide instant visibility of machine run-time status and how many boxes the machines are pumping out at any given timeframe,” explains Benson Hougland, vice president for marketing and production evolution at Opto 22.

Now, Hougland says, the company can compare the performance of its plants, and make decisions based on that information. “The management has this very holistic view of what’s occurring in the plants at any given time,” he says. That allows the company to bring under-performing plants up to par with the best performers.

Though Packaging Corporation of America has been using this technology for a few years, a company new to IoT can get started with a minimal investment, Hougland says. “We always tell people to think big, but start small. And the way to do that is to have, in essence, this appliance or controller with these capabilities.”

IoT saves Christmas

During the Christmas energy price drop mentioned at the beginning of this article, Whitewater’s operating engineer got up from opening his presents, made a call, and the wind farm got shut down in time to prevent a financial disaster. The app and the associated IoT solution saved Whitewater $10,000 to $18,000 an hour that day, estimates Craig VanWagner, SCADA Solutions’ CFO.

In that case, the operator’s call resulted in an engineer driving a truck out to manually shut down operations. Soon, however, such a scenario won’t even require a physical visit to the wind farms; SCADA Solutions and its customers are making upgrades to enable their smartphone apps to do more than deliver alerts. They will also enable operators who get the alerts to shut down operations remotely, or even to simply report on automated shutdowns and restarts.

Images courtesy of Opto 22.

 

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