The industrial internet of things (IIoT) is not a new concept, yet universal adoption has not been seamless or quick. The adoption of new technologies that enable wireless data gathering and analysis has been slow, especially in industries that deal with highly sensitive materials and processes or legacy equipment that is still functioning adequately. Primary concerns include the security of the data gathered and where it will be stored, the cost of retrofitting existing equipment and the reliable functionality of the software.
In weighing the options for IIoT adoption, there are many points to consider, including whether there are smaller, less expensive changes that plant management can consider as a first step, as well as the measurable benefits that justify the initial investment.
One such low-cost option to consider is the use of purpose-built apps that display critical data on a dashboard for specific plant assets.
Stepping up to the future
Many refineries and chemical plants operate with legacy equipment that does not necessarily have digital capabilities. And while the idea of going digital makes for a nice boardroom presentation, the reality is, in most scenarios, upgrading to an integrated and connected plant takes a considerable investment, re-engineering of the plant layout and upgrades to IT and equipment.
When considering profit margins and operational costs, which are always top of mind, the conversation becomes more challenging but not impossible. It requires careful planning and research to determine the best options for modernizing an older plant.
The next generation
While conversations around digitizing operations are happening, there is another important development that has an impact on the decisions involving IIoT: changes in the workforce.
A significant segment of workers are reaching retirement age, and when they leave, they will take with them decades worth of skills and knowledge that cannot be easily or quickly taught to new hires. Also, many younger workers are digital natives and are accustomed to having data at their fingertips on digital devices. This environment has contributed to a growing skills gap in manufacturing that will have a significant effect across industries; it is predicted that millions of jobs will remain unfilled by 2025.
Attracting and integrating the new generation of plant workers, from technicians to engineers, requires stepping up to some form of digitizing and interconnecting the plant as well. Not only because of the digital background of the younger generation of workers, but also because not all the jobs left by the older generation will be backfilled, meaning there will be more work to do for fewer people. To meet the needs of the workload and to ensure the safety and productivity of the plant, new systems need to be put in place.
Data security first
One of the biggest concerns that manufacturers have about adopting digital automation technology is security. What happens when information is shared wirelessly? What about cloud storage? Will the data gathered from meters and transmitters be safe or will it be vulnerable to hackers? With recent reports about data breaches and datamining, the risk of data loss to outside entities is certainly real.
A surprisingly simple solution to mitigating that risk is the use of devices with data diodes that establish a unidirectional security gateway. Combining this with appropriate protocol translations constructs simple systems that allow for the highly secure transfer of data from gateways that talk directly to sensors, such as WirelessHART gateways found on many of today’s newer flowmeter transmitters.
Using these types of devices allows a plant to establish a secure perimeter for data transfer from Coriolis flowmeters, for example, within the plant. This means data can be collected securely from the cloud without physically having to check the meter.
Software applications provide solutions
With data diodes and secure gateways in place on metering equipment, it then becomes a matter of accessing the gateway to collect the data. Several large technology and manufacturing companies are seeing the value of apps — software applications that can live on a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone for easy access. These apps, just like the ones found on a smartphone, allows instant access to data from every designated device.
It would be a nearly impossible task for engineers and technicians to sift through the reams of data that meters generate; however, well-conceived designed software can instantly sift through and compile data into actionable information, such as:
- The health of the meters
- How much is flowing through each meter
- Which meters are not performing within set parameters
- An alert that warns of critical issues requiring immediate attention
This capability relieves a considerable burden on technicians and engineers, because there may not always be an option to quickly glean changes happening in a meter unless they are big enough to cause a noticeable problem down the line.
Adding to that benefit is knowing which meters are not functioning correctly based on what the app displays, meaning users no longer need to check each and every meter in the field. This saves time and money and ensures safer working conditions for personnel.
A purpose-built app for each specific asset — displaying on a dashboard and sending critical alerts when needed — is an easy and cost-effective way a plant can make forays into IIoT.
Connected plant benefits
Greater plant connectivity ensures that data can be acted upon immediately. Relevant information is culled and pushed out to the digital dashboard so everyone with access can view it — not just in terms of the health of the meters, but also the state of production.
Using a collection of easy-to-deploy applications optimizes productivity and ensures greater accuracy in measurement. This has benefits for not only plant operations, but also for custody transfer and for the accurate automated measurement of additives that can be adjusted based on whether readings fluctuate. Furthermore, recorded and stored data provide an audit trail of plant operations that can be used to generate reports needed to meet regulatory and customer compliance standards.
A winning proposition: Software applications
In this data-driven world, a competitive advantage is gained by those who can harness and act on information the fastest. The ability to quickly and easily distill data and translate it into clear, useful and directly actionable information is key.
Leveraging the full potential of available intelligence from plant assets can often seem like a daunting proposition. That’s where well-designed software applications come into play. Software applications offer intelligence, security, scalability and immediate insights, which in turn will allow for peak process optimization and protection of plant operations and assets.
Ron Fleissman is a software product marketing manager at Emerson Automation Solutions. He has extensive experience working with technology and software startups in New York City. Fleissman graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in political science.