Beware of silver bullets

IIoT is not a silver bullet

In a previous article, I noted that IIoT hype is creating much confusion and unrealistic expectations, almost as if it’s going to be some sort of silver bullet for manufacturing.

I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but let me state up-front that for now, particularly in Australia, it’s not.

And here’s why ….

How can a manufacturing business that has zero or minimal visibility into what’s going on within its four walls, be expected to collect meaningful ‘big data’ for some mythical enterprise analytics?

It might be surprising to read that the biggest threat to future-proofing a manufacturing business and preparing it for Industry 4.0 is procurement of systems and equipment.

I recently presented to a group of OpEx people at a conference and listed the questions below that businesses can use, to assess equipment vendor proposals, specifically relating to the control systems and being ‘IIoT-ready’ …

  1. Is the control system (PLC / HMI / SCADA) password-protected and if so, do you know what it is?
  2. Is the code available for you to modify?
  3. Do you actually own the source code?
  4. Is it in English? (always a favourite!)
  5. Is it easy to understand and well written (object-oriented)?
  6. Can it communicate via Ethernet and is connectivity and/or Ethernet-module configuration (that is, getting it onto your network) included in the price?
  7. What key parameters are available and exposed for extraction into (say) a site-based historian / SCADA system / database (e.g. temperature, pressure, flow, water, gas, electricity, run-hours, alarms and events)?
  8. What performance parameters does the vendor recommend be monitored and/or stored for later performance analysis?
  9. What brand / model is the PLC / HMI / SCADA and do you already own the programming software for this, or will you have to purchase it? What is the cost and annual maintenance?
  10. Do you have the in-house experience with this brand, or will you have to outsource or train internal personnel on this platform, or be dependent on a single contractor?
  11. Can recipes / programs be remotely selected by (for example) an Execution system, to enforce governance?
  12. Can the recipes’ set-points be written to (temperature for example), to have dynamic values which may come from an ERP set of recipe master data?

Addressing these questions is imperative if you’re to ensure that the equipment you’re about to purchase doesn’t lead you into a cul-de-sac, a one-way street where the equipment becomes its own ‘island’ and reduces your options for a connected plant.

They’re also great questions to ask about the equipment you already own to mitigate risk to the business.

The second biggest issue relates to plant IT infrastructure.

I’ve seen many variants of this, which essentially can be categorised into four levels of maturity:

  1. There is no plant LAN at all, not even WiFi and much of the equipment has no connectivity capability anyway
  2. There is a plant LAN for the control systems but it’s ‘owned’ by the engineers and deliberately not connected to the corporate WAN. The engineers don’t trust IT to support it for their 24 x 7 operation since Help Desk is a 9-5 service
  3. There is a plant LAN and it’s owned by IT and deliberately not connected to the corporate WAN because IT don’t trust the engineers. With equipment vendors logging in via VPN for remote support, IT believe they represent a virus-risk via back-door into the corporate network from the LAN-side
  4. There is a plant LAN and corporate WAN with firewalls in-between, all owned by IT, and engineering and IT have kissed and made-up as they’ve realised they both work for the same company!

The last is unfortunately the rare exception, yet without this level of interdepartmental maturity and trust, the IIoT and whatever benefits it may yield are nothing more than a utopian dream.

And as the first three rely on some infrastructure spend with minimal ROI, it’s a leap of faith to even commence the journey.

A recent paper on the IIoT by LNS Research explains that the opportunity for IIoT and innovation rests in our ability to seek new answers to new questions, yet those few that do have their house in order are mostly using IIoT to seek new answers to old questions, thereby struggling with even justifying a business case.

For the benefits of IIoT to have any chance of success, it must:

  • Rest on solid foundations with equipment and systems that support ‘open connectivity’
  • Have suitable IT infrastructure in place with engineering and IT singing from the same song-sheet
  • Have Board-level commitment, support and most importantly, Leadership.

Is your manufacturing business infrastructure, the equipment and systems you have, and your leadership sufficiently aligned to ensure your manufacturing business is IIoT-ready?

If not, you’d better start now because the ‘smart factory’ isn’t coming … it’s already here and the IIoT will not be the silver bullet that ensures your business’s survival. In fact, it may very well be The Grim Reaper that sorts the innovators and early-adopters from the laggards …

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