New situations require new solutions
The much-talked-about IIoT has already proven itself a reliable method of pushing information from connected devices in industrial plants to cloud-based solutions providing operational insights. It works now, and IIoT-related services are available from many suppliers. The remote monitoring and alert notification it can provide have shown that it can be relied upon, and that it can provide information simply and cost-effectively — and in easily digestible ways via dashboards etc.
However, despite the positive track record, the take-up of IIoT technology has been slower than the number of articles in the media would suggest — and I am left wondering why.
Is it the cybersecurity aspect? Both control system owners and company IT infrastructure owners are extremely reluctant to open their networks to the outside world, and for good reason. There is the chance of unintentional and intentional harm to be inflicted, so for many, the easy answer to whether to utilise the IIoT is ‘no’. However, this limits the available options: separate communication paths from devices at crucial measurement points in the process can give key performance data critical for process optimisation.
In any case are we really opening up our networks? In simple applications, the edge device delivering IIoT data to the web may only be pushing data out to a cloud service, with no need for any inbound connectivity.
Or is it that we haven’t really needed this additional information as much as we thought? Employees are onsite and our existing control systems are providing all the data and alarms we need, so why bother?
The recent societal shutdown has demonstrated that the communications infrastructure in Australia is reliable and has the capacity to support increased traffic. And if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we need to be prepared for potential business interruption and reductions in on-site staff numbers with short notice.
In a situation such as this, remote access to plant and equipment performance becomes necessary, and perhaps the pandemic will provide a catalyst for more investment in being able to monitor more processes remotely, and be alerted to issues in a cost-effective way.
Remote service is another area where we have seen some successes but again the take-up is slow.
We can now, over 3/4/5G, remotely assist an onsite technician directly from anywhere and wherever they are (as long as there is cellular coverage or Wi-Fi available). Even Ex-rated phones and tablets are now available which further expand the use case.
These services produce great benefits — the site’s own staff get more familiar and comfortable with the devices, and money and time are saved due to the reduction in travel — not to mention the reduction in carbon footprint.
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown in New Zealand, our company recently commissioned a tank level solution remotely from Sydney. With 3/4G communications, and a remote access solution supplied to gain access to the individual device’s communication ports, the remote commissioning was a great success — without the usual travel time and expenditure.
We should be doing more remote service jobs. They allow better use of our specialists’ time, so they are available to more customers. It also removes the geographic restrictions: we can access assistance from all parts of the globe, and easily access higher levels of support should there be a quirky challenge. And, of course, it is more cost-effective for our customers.
I think it is really only a mindset shift that is required. Until you experience it yourself and try the solutions out, you don’t realise how good they are, and how well they actually work. Some still have a hesitancy to use video chat like FaceTime, or WhatsApp, but once you get into it, it has many advantages and saves time, money and overall stress.
We are creatures of habit and if something isn’t broken, why fix it? But new situations require different and new solutions.
In some ways we have been very lucky, in that we could (at least in Australia) have the majority of the workforce onsite to run essential parts of our business. But what if next time that’s not the case and total lockdown is mandated. How do we react? Could, in theory, some processes still be run remotely with the help of the IIoT? Water and wastewater could, with very minimal site attendance. Some food production such as fish farms could. Could your business? It is something to think about...
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