Currently, you cannot avoid the deluge of hype and pitches around the ‘Internet of Things’ – IoT and how this is going to revolutionize the world in which we live. As a manufacturer you may be asking yourself how IoT can benefit your organization by making you more profitable, reduce risk and grow your business. Indeed IoT can play a major role in doing this and helping you achieve your goals, but you need to take a careful look - and not get caught up in the hype that providers of IoT with no manufacturing experience are pitching.
For IoT to work properly in manufacturing, the supplier of the tools and systems needs to have a deep understanding of how manufacturing works. Let’s face it, we can have appliances in our homes connected and talking but this is not the same as manufacturing production equipment providing real time production operation data and as well since IoT is bi-directional in nature, having costly and potentially dangerous machines being controlled via IoT. Let’s take a few minutes to put IoT into the context of manufacturing and see how it can be deployed properly for companies in the manufacturing and assembly environments.
Production machines for years have been built with sensors and electronic controls that are embedded to locally control the operation of the machine. This may be as simple as a parts counter sensor or a safety interlock to prevent hazardous operation and protect operators. In more sophisticated machines, PLC controllers are used to sequence the operation of elements of the machine. Perhaps it’s an automated stamping line with two or 3 punch presses. Pretty simple machines in their own right, but link them together with feed lines, robotics, variable pressures and dwell times, tonnage sensors on the die sets, hydraulic pressure and temperature sensors, amperage, voltage and a plethora of other controls and now we have a system that can generate huge amounts of data as to the operation of the press line. This information historically has been displayed locally on the HMI ( Human Machine Interface ) of the machine for local operator use. The operator was responsible for setting set-points and monitoring the operation. When values get out of line, the operator is the key resource that must take action. Now let’s assume we could have a universal listener device that could accumulate all of this data from each machine, no matter if the PLC controller is Allen Bradley, Siemens, Schneider, Modbus RS485, Modbus TCP or perhaps just a simple dry contact closure. We could now easily place this machine on a secure network and start collecting data ( hundreds or thousands of PLC tags and their values) and aggregate that data into a central location. By replacing the machine connection using the human operator with Ethernet wireline speeds and capacity, we now can have data in great detail that we never could have had in the past.
Bottom line – you need to work with an IoT vendor that has PLC and machine integration background. They have to understand how PLCs operate in highly complex production machines and speak the language of the PLC devices. Generic and consumer IoT solution providers will not be able to quickly integrate and communicate with your industrial automation equipment, especially if you have many vendors of PLC devices and many varying ages of machines. PLC devices from 20 years ago most likely are still performing flawlessly on the shop floor, but connecting to them in today’s networks takes knowledge, experience and a supplier that has the proper tools and systems.
Stay tuned for part 2, as you are probably asking ‘so what, lots of data is not useful unless its meaningful to me’.
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