Put the Internet of Things into Perspective

Connectivity alone will not provide compelling business benefits

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Is the industrial Internet of things (IIOT) just another buzzword, or can it bring real benefits to the chemical industry? ABB, Emerson, Siemens and the ARC Advisory Group say it all depends upon how you use your data.

ABB, for one, has been considering the issues around the IIOT, big data and analytics for well over a decade now, notes Marc Leroux, chief technology evangelist, collaborative production management, Westerville, Ohio. “We’ve been advocating that a key factor is having a contextual model for devices, not looking at them in isolation. Data without context is just data. You need to have context to have actionable information,” he stresses.

This will become even more important. The number of connected devices in a facility easily may triple over the next five years, Leroux believes, with the frequency of data collection growing dramatically, too.

“Potential savings to the chemical industry are not going to come from the IIOT,” he cautions. “From a practical perspective, they may provide better information, and they may provide it faster, but the savings are going to be realized from how the information is used in a systematic way. Today, we already have enough information to manage programs like energy management, resource optimization and inventory reductions. If we’re looking for the IIOT to solve these types of issues, then there is perhaps a different problem. These are decades-old issues. IIOT can add value to them, but if the organization doesn’t have programs in place already, another buzzword isn’t going to solve the problem. Can it improve the results by having more information? Certainly. Will it provide the justification for a program? No, I don’t think so.”

The easiest areas to realize savings, he says, are return on assets (ROA) and workforce productivity.

“ROA is perhaps the poster child for IIOT: the ability to monitor an asset in real time and predict any problems before they occur. Again, this comes back to a systematic approach.”

Workforce productivity can benefit from eliminating the unnecessary data collection that now occurs and from providing better information. For example, if a piece of equipment can supply details about what is failing, a mechanic can bring the necessary replacement parts without having to perform a visual inspection first. This reduces downtime and improves overall productivity.

Safety also stands to improve. Being able to have better information faster to allow a risk analysis on operations certainly can lead to a safer work environment. “We sometimes overlook this aspect, but safety is often the number one KPI [key performance indicator] that companies use, and the IIOT certainly can provide information to feed systems that can manage safety,” he adds.
However, educating managers and executives on the benefit of integrating an IIOT strategy is going to be key to adoption, Leroux also believes. “These are people that have heard this before and don’t believe the hype. Giving clear examples of how getting more information, more timely, and integrated with an existing system, process or strategy can result in lowering costs or improving ROA will be a key part of getting their buy-in.”

“Keeping IIOT running at peak efficiency isn’t going to be that difficult conceptually. It is like every other program that a company has, it needs to be reviewed, evaluated and managed on a regular basis to ensure that it is driving economic improvement. I’m not referring to the IIOT as a ‘program.’ I’m referring to capturing the data that is enabled by the IIOT and using it as part of a larger ‘system.’ That’s what can drive results.”

Such an approach can leverage IIOT to achieve significant benefits, including sparking innovations such as low-cost solutions to problems the companies didn’t even know they had (Figure 1).

Overall, ABB emphasizes two points: first, the names have changed, the technology has gotten better and easier, but producers and suppliers have been dealing with these topics for years; and, second, achieving real business value, something that resonates with the business leaders, remains the essential criterion.

“The IIOT is very real, but by itself is just a technology. It’s the combination of the ‘things’ with processes and people that can turn this into a business advantage. Let’s not lose sight of that,” concludes Leroux.

“IIOT has lots of different meanings, but basically the idea is that the world is becoming more interconnected, the Internet more pervasive — and sensor technology is becoming simpler, more diverse, easier to implement, and more cost effective and easier to deploy because of wireless technology. So part of the IIOT is that we are connecting a lot more things and so can do a lot more diverse sensing,” explains Mike Boudreaux, director, remote asset monitoring and analytics, Emerson Process Management, Round Rock, Texas.

The ability to access actionable information is key, agrees Boudreaux. This, in turn, requires some form of strategic interpretation of the data: “So analysis tools and visualization tools are very important. And we expect a rapid expansion of cloud-based tools in the next five years.”

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