Practical Considerations for IoT Applications: Part 1

Brad Briggs - Director of Product Development at ATEK Access Technologies imageThe term Internet of Things (IoT) or Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which is most relevant to me, are creating a lot of buzz in the media and around company offices these days. I won’t spend any time explaining what IoT or IIoT is, as there are plenty of sources on the internet already doing that. Instead, I want to go over practical considerations before an IIoT implementation can even begin. Below are things that your company needs to consider before starting your search for the IIoT solution that is best for you.

As an IIoT user, the first thing to determine would be what the IIoT application goals are. It is important to think about why the project is being created. You should not implement an IIoT application just because a competitor is. I like to think in terms of pain points, something that, if improved, would better your experience at work. Often IIoT applications take the drudgery of a task away from someone. For example, a person has to go outside daily and manually measure liquid level in tanks, record them and then report those findings to others. By using an IIoT monitor, those tank levels would be recorded automatically in any type of weather and even multiple times during the day. Not to mention, keeping people from climbing on tanks could prevent accidental injury. The goal here could be about increasing productivity. With your customer’s assets being monitored, deliveries would no longer be made to customers who don’t need servicing, because their inventories are visible in real time. Another classic example is a piece of remote equipment that malfunctions and no one knows about it for far too long. Setting a goal or goals will also help prevent mission creep which can happen when a project is started with no clear direction and no idea of when it should end.

Next, cost will always be a factor in any project and IIoT applications are no different. Whether you are an IIoT supplier trying to get a sale or someone within a company that is trying to get funding to implement the project, there are always people to convince. If the pain point and the value gained from the project are both high then the convincing will be easier as you have a good story to tell. If the opposite is true then of course the convincing will involve more work and a bullet proof ROI will be necessary. Determining the willingness of someone to spend money on an IIoT application early will help guide you on how much of your resources to devote to the project.

IIoT applications will involve the collection of data and how that data benefits a business is up to the user. This data could be a collection of physical measurements such as distance, temperature, force, vibration, and level and/or conditions such as alerts when a physical measurement exceeds a limit. A user will have to receive that data and take action for it to be of value. Who is that person in the user organization? How will they get the data? There is an important distinction to be made here. Data is most often like a big pile of numbers that don’t usually tell you anything without having to analyze them. Information on the other hand is data that is made actionable. The remote device that is being monitored will have data taken from it and the implementer of the IIoT system will need to decide where in the system that data will be transformed into actionable information. An alert is an example of actionable information. When a physical measurement crosses a threshold on a monitored asset, the IIoT system captures that event and signals a user that this has happened. Then the user initiates an action to correct the condition that caused the physical measurement to exceed the threshold. If this had been, for example, a temperature that reached a maximum limit and the user had been just presented with the temperature data, then that person might have to look up in a chart the maximum value for that reading before knowing which action needed to be taken. Further, an IIoT system could have alerted the user that the temperature reading was trending to a limit and the user could take preventive action. Data is important and so is its management. In addition to who will look at the data there are other considerations such as does it need to be stored and if so, then where will it be stored and for how long.

All of this data and information needs to be accessible. Will the IIoT application have a monitor at the site that sends alerts and status information directly to a computer, smart phone, or will it send it to the cloud, or both? Some remote IIoT devices are certainly capable of communicating directly to you, but for devices that are battery-powered the ability to interact with the device and make requests of it would be severely limited to preserve power. A line powered device that is on all of the time would be able to take requests from you on demand. Another approach that is very common is for the monitor to report to the cloud. This is just a server in a data center somewhere that your monitor communicates with. You can access the server using a web site that you log into. This approach will allow you to access the data and information from all the monitors any time you want and from any internet connected computer or smart phone. The web site can allow you to see all of your monitored assets in chart or graphical style and provides reporting functions. Some of these web sites can provide analytic functions to further turn data into actionable information.

A last consideration for the user is about managing your business processes that should change because of the IIoT application. If your business process remains unchanged and people keep doing what they have always done then the money and resources spent to implement the IIoT application would be wasted. Think about if you had a company that sent people in trucks to service your customers by maintaining inventory at your customer’s site. You implement an IIoT application at those sites to determine the inventory situation that allows you to decide when to schedule a service call. However, your company pays the service people by the number of customers they service each pay period. So, the service people ignore your routing or delivery schedule and stop by local customers whether they need service or not, in order to make their number. Why have the IIoT system at all? Instead the service people should have incentives that take into account dollars of services provided per number of stops such that the people become more productive as they use the information coming from the IIoT application. A discussion of how this application will change your business is important to have with your employees before the application is implemented to set up your company for success.

There are many important practical considerations to think about before deciding to take on an IIoT application at your place of business. This list is by no means exhaustive, instead it is meant to start a new thought process around the IIoT. By taking the time to think through these considerations you will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome for your IIoT application.

Brad Briggs –Director of Product Development, ATEK Access Technologies