The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and What It Means for Your Food Plant

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The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and What It Means for Your Food Plant

By now, you’ve likely heard about the various ways our homes are getting “smarter.” We now have devices such as the Amazon Echo, Wi-Fi-connected toaster ovens and doorbells with live-streaming video. Nowadays, you can lock your front door from your smartphone, tell Siri to turn on the lights inside your house and control your thermostat from anywhere you have an internet connection.

These networks of physical devices embedded with electronics, sensors and software that allow them to connect and communicate are often referred to as the Internet of Things. This new era of technology isn’t just limited to your home, though — food and beverage plants are taking advantage of smart devices as well.  

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) refers to connected devices and technologies that can collect, monitor, analyze and exchange large amounts of data and provide valuable business information to improve processes, quality or maintenance activities within a plant.

Are you thinking about using more of this technology in your facility? Let’s look at some advantages, considerations and potential pitfalls.

The advantages of IIoT

Improved manufacturing flexibility and performance

One of the greatest benefits of IIoT technologies is that they provide flexibility in manufacturing. Achieving high throughput on a line producing the same product is old news — look at any major beer canning operation. However, increasing throughput and efficiency when you have a large variety of products is a different story.

Filling thousands of cans with the same exact product is relatively easy, but how do you translate that efficiency to a wide array of SKUs with hundreds of configurations? Today, IIoT technology can help automate this and make the process less manual and more repeatable.

This kind of flexibility is making it possible for new industries, like meal kit services, to flourish. Consider how these companies offer a variety of meal choices in a week from which a customer can choose. There are a lot of different possible combinations of meals and ingredients that can go into a box, but the facility doesn’t have a dedicated manufacturing line for each possible permutation, of course. Smart automation can make managing this wide variety of product combinations possible.

Preventative maintenance and increased OEE

Plus, implementing an integrated control and information system can give you access to real-time production data, which can improve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and eliminate time spent on manual data collection.

IIoT technology can also provide failsafe systems to prevent engineering mistakes and improve overall performance. Previously inaccessible performance data is now readily available and provides a benchmark to drive improvements. Not only that, but imagine anticipating when equipment maintenance is needed rather than reacting to once equipment actually fails. Today, predictive models can be applied to anticipate equipment or product failure, making your maintenance efforts proactive instead of reactive.

Migrating to IIoT technology in your plant

Most new facilities built today are equipped with control technology and smart machines that can communicate with each other, but renovating an older facility can be more difficult.

With migration, you’re essentially starting from the ground up. Automation equipment is typically as old as a facility itself, so the infrastructure and equipment typically weren’t built with IIoT in mind. There may be some components that can be integrated into a new technology system, but in a facility with 20+ year-old technology, most elements won’t play in the IIoT universe.

When is it time to upgrade your control system? How do you efficiently migrate your automation system? An experienced partner can help you identify opportunities to efficiently integrate IIoT devices into your processing as well as help you select cost-effective options best suited for your needs.

Security concerns: Is an internet-connected facility safe?

The short answer to this question is: yes, an internet-connected facility is safe, generally speaking. There’s no need to avoid IIoT technology like the plague, but you should coordinate with your IT group to ensure your internet-connected devices and network aren’t susceptible to security threats. The members of your IT group understand control systems and where their interfaces are, and it’s critical that you involve them early in the process.

Of course, when it comes to protecting controllers and control systems, a lot of it depends on the specific situation and comes down to implementation. However, one basic rule is that you should not give your controllers a public IP address. Instead, put it on a private network and only open ports to the specific devices you need.

What role does “the cloud” play?

I’ve gotten questions about how food and beverage plants should handle cloud services. Should the cloud be used for decision making? Data storage? Both? Here’s the bottom line: The cloud isn’t a good fit for real-time decision making.

You have to consider throughput and latency — if you push decision making to the cloud, everything could come to a halt if the network goes down or if connection to the cloud is lost. It’s incredibly risky. On the other hand, long-term data storage is where the cloud excels.

Cloud storage agreements can be configured with uptime and redundancy requirements to meet your needs, but for industrial automation, some data needs to be available at a lower latency, making those data points a better fit for on-site storage. If long-term storage is also a requirement, a “store and forward” strategy with the long-term archival handled in the cloud and the low-latency current data stored locally is often the right mix.

If your system is designed correctly, losing connection to the cloud should only be a temporary hiccup because your data is stored locally. When the connection comes back online, just refresh the cloud and move on.

How safe are major cloud service providers?

There are really only a handful of major players in this space such as Amazon S3 and Microsoft, so if you use someone else, the truth is that “under the hood” they’re also using these major players. For example, GE Predix runs on Amazon S3.

Personally, I would be more concerned about security if one of these big players wasn’t involved in managing your cloud solutions. Ultimately, most real IIoT security concerns tend to be on the implementation side of things, at the plant level.

 

Have questions about IIoT and how it fits in your facility? Email me at mgriffith@stellar.net

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