IIoT arrives; It’s time to get started

Implementation is not only practical, but now is a competitive necessity.


Delivering IIoT: Pioneer Energy Mobile Alkane Gas Separators produce both methane and natural gas liquid streams at well sites. Courtesy: SeeqThe Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has progressed from dream to hype to reality. Today, the basic deployment scenarios of the IIoT solutions we implement for our end user manufacturing customers include:

  • Greenfield deployments, which are primarily found in "smart" solutions related to advanced monitoring and visibility
  • Brownfield upgrades, which are the introduction of IIoT technologies and approaches to existing facilities to expand asset and process visibility and analytics
  • New asset-monitoring services from vendors who are leveraging IIoT to provide remote predictive analytics capabilities for their assets installed at customer sites.

The enthusiasm and growth in IIoT momentum over the last year is obvious in the pages of this magazine, as there continue to be IIoT-related articles in every issue. But this does not mean the industry has agreed on its naming conventions; so we continue to refer to "digital transformation," "smart manufacturing," the "fourth industrial revolution," and "Industrie 4.0", in addition to IIoT.

Regardless of what a sensored, connected, integrated factory is called, IIoT continues its march forward as the expected architecture for process manufacturing facilities. The competitive advantages enabled by increased and consistent visibility, accuracy and data-driven insights on production results are simply too important for most firms to ignore, hence the growth in IIoT deployments.

Don't get caught behind

As we look ahead in 2017, there are many ways to discuss what's ahead for IIoT. For example there are new IIoT technologies to consider, such as drones, robots, voice-powered artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality solutions. And while those will likely have a future in IIoT, there is also an important issue we need to address first: most firms need to catch up to the technology opportunities available today.

In their operations room, Pioneer Energy uses Seeq for remote monitoring and analytics of data produced at Mobile Alkane Gas Separator systems running at drill sites. Courtesy: SeeqAnalyst research shows a large gap between the expectations and advantages of IIoT, and the state of current deployment efforts. Further, IIoT deployments are generally piecemeal rather than broadly applied across a plant. What this means is that IIoT enthusiasm and potential benefits are not being realized by many end users, with the opportunity still ahead of them, instead of being already recognized in bottom line results.

Part of this gap may be due to the oft-cited advice that companies should start small and have IIoT deployments prove their value and impact before moving on to more widespread implementations. This is great advice and hard to argue with, and aligns with the limited number of large IIoT deployments within companies. Certainly an early success will bode well for organizational enthusiasm for continued IIoT investments. End users should be complimented for any IIoT investments or trial deployments they have completed, because at the end of the day they have done something and at least tried. In the world of software startups there is an expression: "fail fast." This means it's better to try something and learn it doesn't work than to wonder if it might have worked. So any end user with something to share, prove or present with respect to IIoT is ahead of those still wondering what's possible. The rest of this article will examine the challenges and experiences of end users who have taken the leap, with the goal of providing a roadmap to others contemplating similar steps.

Standards, security are issues

Andy Young, process control manager at Pioneer Energy, takes an IIoT approach to monitoring their Mobile Alkane Gas Separator systems that run at drill sites to produce both methane and natural gas liquid streams. Courtesy: SeeqThe quip about standards, "the great thing about standards is there is one for every issue," continues to be a reality in the IIoT ecosystem. Perhaps 2016 was a step in the right direction with partnership agreements and the merger of some standards bodies, or maybe 2016 was a step in the wrong direction with ever more standards and the momentum of competing efforts. Either way, 2017 will not see a world of functional, compatible, Lego blocks which an end user can assemble to create a mixed-vendor, distributed, IIoT solution.

Meanwhile the other "s" word-security-is consistently a leader on lists of requirements, concerns and issues with IIoT-and certainly in this area will not be realized in 2017. Automobile, HVAC, SCADA and any number of other systems have been hacked. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to security issues. Instead, what is needed is hard work, best efforts and the selection of solutions with limited exposure to the outside world.

Using either a lack of standards or fear of security issues as an excuse to not move ahead on IIoT implementations simply pushes the necessary learning and experience that will come out of the effort further down the road,and can put end users further behind in the IIoT race.

Focus on business impact

Andy Young, process control manager at Pioneer Energy, said IIoT technologies enable Mobile Alkane Gas Separator remote systems to produce methane and natural gas at drill sites. Courtesy: SeeqIn many IIoT articles, the starting point is the sensor. That is the origination point for data that flows through a communications network to a centralized application with analytics, integration, data storage, etc. It is easy to start at the sensor because the hardware and communications innovation that is driving IIoT is exciting and it is fun to think it about from that perspective.

Micro-sensors; Arduino, Raspberry PI and Intel Galileo platforms; long-life batteries; low power wireless systems; and builder kits from Microsoft, IBM and Amazon are areas in the news and of interest. There is so much to imagine with sensors and logic added to every possible asset and structure.

Unfortunately, these technologies often don't necessarily serve the business end of the issue. The right question is not what's possible with the new technologies, but what's important to the business: a quantifiable positive impact to production and business outcomes.

This impact can be realized in many ways, such as increased uptime, improved quality, higher yields, etc. Positive results also could include motivating and incenting employee behavior through visibility to production status and the impact of their actions.

The best IIoT deployment stories are those demonstrating positive impacts to the bottom line. These stories stress the impacts, then work backwards to the technologies making benefits possible.

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