IoT still strong in difficult times

MRO Electric and Supply
By Joseph Zulick*
Monday, 30 November, 2020

IoT still strong in difficult times

There are many business areas that are struggling currently, but the Internet of Things and Industrial Internet of Things are not included in this stress. If your concerns are around the risks of COVID-19 and the proximity of your co-workers, then you needn’t worry about the benefits of IoT and IIoT.

The strength of IoT and IIoT is being able to obtain data at a distance. We now have an even greater way to connect our information over further distances. Under the current business trends, we are trying to be more creative. This means we take the systems we used to have and now try to make them fit into our rapidly changing need for information.

One year ago, manufacturers were contemplating how they were going to weave IIoT into their fabric of information and their existing IT systems. Fast forward and we are now adapting to Zoom meetings, working from home and getting the answers we used to have by walking into a plant floor or running a report in the office.

Access is one of the biggest issues. How do we securely allow for remoting into the servers, and who can gain what system access? This can be a difficult situation because it’s very likely that what one person feels they need to access may not be what the IT department and supervisor deem necessary.

You need to determine who needs what and when. Can they openly access the IoT information that gets fed into reporting software or processors? Can you use firewalls that are time-locked out, much like the safes in the movies that can’t be opened until morning once they’re locked? Once you determine who is authorised and who needs the information, you can look at the next phase. But how?

How do the users need the information? Let’s use a simple example of a sensor that tracks the machine running or not running. Once that sensor feeds the information into the accumulation device or control through a gateway, it will be populated and push the information up to the cloud. Now the software that reads the sensor time on and off will put this into a register or location from which your other cloud programs will pull the information. You may have an OEE program that uses this information to produce a report on OEE or efficiency. This is a high-level report that may combine this information with downtime information that the maintenance department can use to do preventive repairs.

The uptime may combine with the data for the jobs to help managers in production to determine if they will meet their demands or may be used to let them know they will have to run overtime.

The above examples are departments or people that use this information, but there are many programs that will also need to pull this information. ERP (enterprise resource planning) and MRP (material requirements planning) systems will pull the same information and the register data to determine if the manufacturer has adequate supplies of raw materials and if the in-process work can be completed.

Other programs, such as maintenance programs that plan for preventive care using hours of runtime as a parameter, need to use these registers as well. The sharing of data with people and programs is a very important part of IoT.

We know accessibility and sharing are crucial to the value of IoT, but what else? Feedback. Once we have received the information, we need to take the data and adjust the parameters. Many of today’s sensors have adjustability; they have a sensitivity curve that can be adjusted and calibrated, based on environment or even chemical make-up. Many times, when we think about sensors and actuators we think about the ones we are most familiar with, but there are many types that can monitor chemicals, gases and position. In some of these sensors they need to have a manual adjustment or in many current sensors they have an electrical adjustment. The feedback gives you better control over the accuracy of the sensor and makes it more responsive.

Feedback also provides information back to smart controllers which are able to take data profiles and customise sensors to the job or application. Many sensors now are using a combination approach. Using optical sensors in conjunction with accelerometers gives a great range of motion to track position.1 Other sensors use depth, optical and acoustical sensors to work in synchronisation for inputting on the Microsoft computer using their Kinect system.

Programming sensors and tracking their function gives you a far better result. The details of each sensor can be modified, and the status of the sensor can be tracked and compared against historical benchmarks.

One issue that comes up in sensors is that the closer you set a transition, the more likely you are to receive errors like switch or sensor bounce. This shows up as multiple openings and closures of the sensor. Smart systems provide solutions for this by ignoring transitions that happen too close to the first transition or using other measures to move the transition point into an area that is more stable.

An often-overlooked solution in the IoT world is to look at the actuator for the sensor. In many cases, the switch arm or flag for the proximity switch may not be optimally set up. Perhaps using a different switch arm with a different range of motion, or one that uses a larger actuating point, gives a better performance.

Smart sensors use field processing that allows for sensors to be processed at the field level and only transmit the ‘clean’ information. This means that it is processed and attenuated to the proper levels and has some level of security and field wiring protection.2 Many now come in a single package that provides a gateway/communication, voltage and failure monitoring, and back-up.

With more and more demand to have these sensors wireless and mountable in other locations, more demand for performance is desired. Failure is not an option and a plan must be part of your IoT solution for all foreseeable problems; this includes signal outage and power outage. You need to have a plan for addressing this sensor data when a failure occurs.

If you think about autonomous vehicles and their sensors, the more we rely on the sensors and the IoT, the better the reliability must be when lives are at stake. We have seen some of these failures end in accidents, so we must be diligent in optimising the performance of our sensors.

All parts of the IoT are on the rise and all must be improved to keep up with the demand: sensor performance, failure rate, gateway, communication and cloud infrastructure, and upgrading all of our software and program speed and processing.

Everything in our future Jetsons world must be dynamic and flexible to rise to the challenge of technology. In manufacturing optimisation, we talk about the fact that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The IoT is working on all phases to not be that weakest link. Sensors are improving to use less energy so they can run off backup for a longer time. Redundant systems are backing up the data. Gateways are becoming more secure and faster while using better communication protocols. The speed of 5G is right around the corner and our programs are being redesigned to process faster.

The future of IoT is bright indeed. Wear shades as needed!

*Joseph Zulick is a writer and manager at MRO Electric and Supply.

  1. Augmented Reality Hardware by Alan B. Craig, in Understanding Augmented Reality:
  2. Smart Sensor Technology for the IoT:

Image credit: © Planet Studio

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