IIoT grows up, users ramp up

June 24, 2022
System integrator E Tech and Lake Cable show how IIoT accelerates and expands applications
IIoT works overtime

The Industrial Internet of Things is surpassing itself with added data sources, more detailed information and greater insights—if users are open-minded and flexible enough to try it. Read more of this series here. 

At its root, IIoT is about getting data from sensors, instruments and other production devices to the Internet for analysis and consumption by wider circles of users—and getting analytics results back to the line. Luckily, these tasks are getting easier as users get more familiar with implementing IIoT in their processes and plant, according to Alan Maxwell, VP of the Process Industries Division at E Tech Group, a system integrator in West Chester Township, Ohio, and certified member of the Control System Integrators Association.

“It’s getting easier for us to connect sensors and acquire signals using software like Kepware that’s part of PTC and Wonderware System Platform that’s part of Aveva, and network via OPC UA and MQTT Sparkplug protocols via Skkynet’s DataHub,” says Maxwell. “This lets them integrate third-party IoT solutions like Oden Technologies’ software for specific industries to help run analytics in cloud-based applications and improve production lines.”

Stephen Veldhuis, CTO at E Tech, adds: “Five years ago, IIoT was a lot newer, and everyone was doing it differently. So, we evaluated the viability of IIoT and found wireless sensors and edge computing could reduce constructability time and labor, but little standardization of protocols and limited device life due to power consumption resulted in few viable cases for implementation. However, IIoT continued to evolve, mature and add new capabilities. Now, we find more workable use cases, driving adoption.”

Customize in Chicago

For instance, Maxwell reports that E Tech’s Advanced Software division develops and connects custom applications, such as using Oden’s algorithms and data acquisition modules to help Lake Cable LLC in Chicago quickly gather and move data to Oden’s cloud computing service. “The question with data analytics is cost, how cumbersome is it, and how can you properly eat up data and digest into a form that’s user-friendly all the way up to top-tier management,” says Cooper Runzel, plant manager at Lake Cable.

Runzel reports that Oden outfitted its lines for data acquisition without changing its existing machinery or what its staff was used to, and instead eased implementation by adjusting the shape of its solutions to fit what Lake was doing daily. “You don’t want to be required to have someone with an Excel background to figure out what the process is doing. You want the guy with the hands-on experience to be able to consume all that information, and spit it out as a useful product,” explains Runzel. “Every manufacturing shop is a living organism, and any time you change a single portion of it, everything gets roughed up around it until the change seats, and it’s a lot of hard work. None of that happens with Oden. It let us diagnose and prevent a quality defect in less than 20 minutes, saved our capacity, and prevented us and our engineers from wasting time.”

Matthew Darling, engineering director at Lake Cable, adds, “Data for data’s sake isn’t helpful, but data if used properly can be extremely powerful for a company, and set it apart from its competitors. The U.S. economy needs more automation to improve our ability to operate effectively, and Oden’s system allows that by bringing about efficiencies that make us competitive.”       

Guided by use cases 

Similarly, Maxwell explains that potential IIoT users and system integrators must start by defining how they’re going to use the data because it will guide their search for the IIoT solution that’s most suitable for them. “There’s so much data out there, and you can end up with more than what you can deal with. You can get lost in trying to contextualize it, ending up with something with no value. It’s critical for users to understand the infrastructure, define what data they need to collect from each device, and boil it down to key metrics that let them make informed business decisions,” says Maxwell.

“They can slap a sensor onto a machine or process and get their MQTT Sparkplug network to recognize it, but most users are still connecting to PLCs, drives, instruments and other field devices as before. Many users want to know how to improve their overall performance or identify what may be causing performance issues, but they don’t know how to connect to the equipment or device. This is where infrastructure comes in. Next, we ask them what they want to know about this equipment, and then we can help them understand what data to collect and how to present it.”

Accepted by everyone

Will Eddins, group engineering manager of Advanced Software at E Tech, adds that applying IIoT in the field is different today because connecting wireless routers with cloud-computing services is more widely accepted. “Five or six years ago, companies were strongly opposed to their data being stored in the cloud, but now it’s more accepted—everyone’s doing it,” he says. “This makes IIoT a more efficient and cost-effective solution for users to optimize operations.”

After gauging their data needs and connectivity requirements, IIoT projects can begin to contextualize and present information for analysis onsite or in the cloud. Of course, establishing network links also means providing cybersecurity, which includes deciding how much data to contextualize at the edge before exposing it to the cloud.

“We use Aveva Intelligence software to contextualize data and develop metrics. We also create some custom device drivers with Kepware and Wonderware System Platform, to enable connectivity to OEMs,” says Maxwell.

“These software tools let us put all of a user’s data in one place for analysis, such as a web-based app in a client’s intranet,” says Eddins. “For example, we recently provided connection points to Mettler Toledo cargo scales for a large parcel client at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, SCADA for its sortation system, and a central repository for its data. This system went live two years ago and was recently expanded to 300 scales at multiple hubs.”

To achieve this happy ending, Eddins adds that E Tech had to revamp the 20-year-old, Windows NT-based system the airport’s scales and sortation equipment had been using. “Microsoft patches could and did take this system down for several hours, and custom protocols were needed to get data in and out,” he explains. “We had to reverse engineer this 1990s application to determine what the scales were actually doing, and write new drivers to communicate with them via custom network protocols. Now, the scales are using consistent and standardized network protocols like OPA UA and MQTT, with well documented practices, eliminating the need for customer drivers.”

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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