Industrial Automation and the Internet of Things

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“Smart” technology has penetrated our daily lives, from household lighting and thermostats to fitness monitors and connected appliances. We have seen the capacity of home automation to save money, conserve energy, and provide unprecedented conveniences through remote access. Industrial systems stand to gain similar benefits while also improving worker safety and increasing productivity. Presenters at PEP’s Industrial Automation and Technology Seminar discussed the benefits and risks associated with internet automation and shared real-world examples of the Industrial Internet of Things.

What is Industrial Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things or IoT refers to the connection of devices such as machinery, vehicles, and electronics to the internet, providing endless opportunities for data exchange among devices. In the industrial setting, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) builds upon existing automation and internal networking with smart devices that incorporate data-driven technologies and machine learning. IIoT allows businesses to harness the power of data in improving efficiencies, monitoring equipment, and increasing quality control while enhancing environmental and economic sustainability.

Intelligent machine control in Komatsu dozers and excavators provides an example of IIoT. Machines fully integrated with GPS technology provide triangulation and accuracy within one tenth of a foot, both horizontally and vertically. This location data provides more accurate excavation, an automatic shift from rough to finish grading once the target grade has been reached, and added safety with automated track-slip reduction. Automation saves money through reduced time required for staking, rough dozing, finish grading, and inspection. “The GPS technology provides real-time information displays in the cabs of the machines for the operators to utilize without having to physically investigate and diagnose any problems outside the cab,” said Buddy Averett, Smart Construction Manager, Tractor and Equipment Company. Automation also minimizes human error.

Benefits of Internet Automation

One advantage of IIoT over closed networks is the ability to access data from anywhere in the world at any time. Operations managers can check equipment, schedules, and inventories without on-site connectivity, while executives can analyze performance from company headquarters. The IIoT can be adapted to any number of systems, from equipment maintenance and plant operations to supply chain management and distributions.

Matt Burton, PE, Corporate Director of Automation Technology at Hargrove Engineers + Constructors, found using IIoT to monitor equipment created efficiencies in maintenance. Equipment health monitors allow operators to plan for maintenance and avoid equipment failures. “The IIOT will convert unexpected downtime to planned downtime,” said Burton. Data collected from equipment also allows for improved safety, with analytics evaluating whether equipment is used properly.

The Alabama State Port Authority has used automation to improve the environment, operational efficiency, logistics, and safety at the McDuffie and Pinto Terminals. At the McDuffie terminals lasers sweep the piles of coal and send commands to the cranes to move the piles while auto misters and water cannons help with dust suppression, which is an environmental concern. “The automated process for dumping the loads of the rail cars is simply amazing,” said Brad Ojard, Senior Vice President of Operations for the Alabama State Port Authority. “The technology allows two train cars to be rotated and dumped at the same time.”

Adopting the IIoT also allows businesses to maintain a competitive edge by increasing efficiency. Such applications need not be complicated, as with Prism Systems’ “Smart Vending” machines. “We’ve taken the basic vending machine and added the technology for it to communicate data back to the owner for optimization of maintenance and performance,” said Todd Hassel, Business Development Manager for Prism Systems. Two-way communication with the units allows for web-based monitoring and real-time problem solving. Prism Systems also applied IIoT to cellular tower shelter houses to manage HVAC systems more efficiently while providing the precise environmental control required by cellular systems. Widespread adoption of this system has potential to yield upwards of $30 million in energy savings.

 Managing the Risks

All new technologies come with a unique set of challenges. Cyber-security is a big issue that must be addressed before adopting IIoT technologies. Because detailed company information and data are accessible through the internet, systems are exposed to hacking, viruses, malware, and ransomware. Adoption of IIoT provides cost savings in some areas, but may increase expenses for advanced network security and employee training. Such costs need to be considered when conducting a financial evaluation to determine the return on investment for adopting IIoT.

Chris Williams, Esq. Attorney, with the Cyber Security Practice Group at Hand Arendall, LLC and Andy Odle, Director of IT with Wilkins Miller, LLC suggest humans are the weakest links when it comes to managing the risks associated with IIoT. Employee training and awareness are critical to cyber-security. Likewise, restricting access minimizes opportunities for failure. Managing up-to-date security systems, preparing for breeches, and performing regular cyber tests akin to fire drills are all part of a well-protected system. Automated systems often run on third-party software, so it is also important to manage the risks associated with vendors. Finally, cyber-insurance is available to provide an added layer of protection.

For many companies, the benefits of implementing new connected technologies far outweigh the cons provided proper risk-management protocols are employed. “The technology in the management of the Industrial Internet of Things is changing rapidly and product development is in high gear,” said Burton. “Today, products are achieving just a fraction of the data and capability that products will provide in the coming years.” As technology advances, IIoT is poised to become an ever more important component of sustainable business operations.

See Full Seminar Agenda and Speaker Bios.