C-Suite to Design Team - Let’s Brew Up Some IoT and Make a Killing!
John Hayes posted on July 14, 2017 | 3415 views
Let's get these products on IoT -- now!  (Image from The Boss Baby © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)

Let's get these products on IoT -- now! (Image from The Boss Baby © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)

Imagine for a moment that you run a design team in a company that makes custom machinery.

Now imagine that, one day in the not-so-distant future, somebody from the C-Suite will stop by your office to talk about IoT.

“There is a whole new business line just waiting to be tapped, and all it will take is for your team to instrument our machines when you install them at our customer sites,” he’ll say.  As he walks away, he’ll be thinking, “And then the money rolls in!” 

You haven’t had a chance to interject, “That’s not how it works,” and now you have to deal with all the points he’s skipped over in his quest for world domination.

Little things; like: What sort of sensors? Where do they connect? What data do they generate? How do we maintain data security? How do we find intelligence in the data that helps our customers? How does this become a product?

Loaded with more questions than answers, you go to his office, only to be turned away with a comment like, “Our customers will pay a fortune for predictive maintenance.”

This will tell you where his head is at, but falls short of telling you exactly how to execute his grand vision.

“And then, we can stop selling machines altogether, and we’ll start selling the service that they perform…” He pauses to add the clincher. “Like Rolls Royce is doing with jet engines.”

All of this puts you in a difficult position. If you press him further, he’ll probably reel off a list off software solutions such as GE Predix, PTC’s Thingworx or Siemens MindSphere. But you know that software alone isn’t the answer. Software is, at best, one part of the solution.

You better get cracking. Maybe start with some low-cost testing. You probably have a few days before the next dreaded drop-in meeting. You know it’s coming. Better to get in front of it.

If this story sounds like it could happen at your company, read on. In this post, we’ll cover:

i.    How a design team at Rittal developed an IoT demonstration in just two months

ii.   Where that team sees additional opportunities for their IoT data

iii.  Steps you can take to experiment with IoT for your existing products

Rittal’s Project to Equip Their Devices for the IoT

Judith Koetzsch Director, Business Development for After Sales Service at Rittal

Judith Koetzsch Director, Business Development for After Sales Service at Rittal

The scenario set out above wasn’t exactly how things unfolded at Rittal, a manufacturer of electrical enclosures. However, Rittal executives did indeed realize the significant opportunities to be gained from instrumenting their equipment for the IoT. Their response was to conduct a test case in early 2017. 

The device they selected was their new Blue e+ enclosure air conditioner.  Rittal customers are often in a factory floor automotive environment where there is a lot of controlled equipment. The electronic components that control this equipment are housed within enclosures to protect them from dust, debris and other interference. The Blue e+ is designed to dissipate heat from within those enclosures where electronics, such as drives, are generating heat. 

Judith Koetzsch was selected to lead the project earlier this year. She had already spent 16 years with Rittal, most of which were in product management. Her role was to define the use case and requirements for connecting the Blue e+ to the IoT, and then make the demonstration application a reality.  

She explained the role of enclosure air conditioners: “Typical electrical enclosures are designed to function at around 95F, and that’s what an enclosure AC unit is for – to keep the internal enclosure temperature at 95F.”

“You want it to be as efficient as possible from an energy perspective,” added Koetzsch. “Also, as a user in a production environment, you want to be able to understand any system or alarm messages as easily as possible. Finally, you want a clear schedule for maintenance.” 

She claims that Rittal has achieved these goals with the Blue e+. However, these achievements come at the cost of added complexity, so monitoring the various system components has become increasingly important.

For example, the Blue e+ comes with an integrated heat pipe, so that if the ambient temperature is cool enough, the Blue e+ can use that air for cooling rather than running the compressor. Similarly, the Blue e+ has integrated controls to adjust the speed at which the fans and compressor run depending on what level of cooling is required.

These controls and the sensors inside the unit are what made the Blue e+ a good candidate for Rittal’s IoT project.

Developing a Use Case for Rittal’s IoT Project

Koetzsch noted that, “a customer might have up to 1,000 enclosure air conditioning units on a single production site, although most sites have between 50 and 80.  Many customers have more than one site, however, so the number of devices to monitor can be large. You can see the value of aggregating this data.”

An example installation of Rittal air conditioning enclosures.
An example installation of Rittal air conditioning enclosures.

Rittal launched their IoT project in February 2017. Their goal was to have a functioning demonstration by April, in time for a major trade show in Hannover.

The most important first step was to develop a credible use case. To that end, Judith recruited a field service technician and a production site user to provide factory floor insights.  After some discussion, they settled on an application that would help maintenance or plant managers monitor the condition of all the Rittal devices on a shop floor.

Ideally, this application would detect the remaining useful life of components to help identify service requirements early. Koetzsch pointed out that, “This information would allow our customers to have the right spare parts on hand and get a high first-time fix rate.” The team also decided to develop optimized walking maintenance routes that could be derived from this data.  

Connecting the Blue e+ Device to the IoT

The Blue e+ has a number of sensors that track information the team wanted to report, including:

  • Pressure in the refrigeration circuit
  • Speed of various components
  • Multiple sensors to track temperature at various places inside the unit as well as ambient temperature
  • Incoming voltage
  • Performance of the motors in the unit
  • Degree of opening of the expansion valve within the refrigeration circuit

The data from these sensors flows through a communication module that is connected to the Blue e+ unit which can communicate using various protocols. Rittal used OPC-UA for the demonstration, routing data through a gateway which in turn transmitted the data to the cloud. 

To ensure that the team could meet their aggressive timetable, Koetzsch wanted to select a platform that they could implement quickly. This desire to go quickly was mitigated by the knowledge that platforms that are being tested have a way of becoming permanent, which meant choosing the right test platform was important.

Rittal chose MindSphere from Siemens because they were confident that the Siemens application would be compatible with all communications platforms and provide the basis for secure data exchange — both critical requirements for Rittal.

Developing the IoT Demonstration Application

Koetzsch and her team developed an app that shows the layout of a client’s production site. The Rittal Blue e+ units are marked in yellow, green and red as illustrated in the screenshot below. Red indicates a unit that requires immediate action, whereas green indicates a unit that does not require any attention at this time.

Rittal demonstration IoT application showing AC units on a factory floor, plus an optimized maintenance route.
Rittal demonstration IoT application showing AC units on a factory floor, plus an optimized maintenance route.

The app also displays a walking maintenance route, shown in the screen shot as the pink line. Note that it skips the green units, as those ones are indicated to be functioning within the correct operating parameters and don’t require maintenance or repair.

The application can also display live data from each of the Blue e+ units on the factory floor. This allows the technician to effectively peer into each unit’s data to determine what maintenance steps it requires. The screen shot below shows the status of the fans as an example.

Rittal demonstration IoT application showing component status within a specific Blue e+ unit.
Rittal demonstration IoT application showing component status within a specific Blue e+ unit.

This component data is also matched to component inventory on-hand. For parts that are not on site, the app allows users to request spare parts and service visits directly from Rittal.

Pulling all this information together to build a compelling demonstration in such a short time was a tall order for Koetzsch and her team. They managed to complete the entire project, from defining the use cases, developing the application, connecting the equipment and getting ready for the show, in two months. Given this tight deadline, they decided to outsource the application programming to Siemens. Even with that help, however, “there was some overtime,” Koetzsch conceded. 

“When can I have this?”

-Rittal customer at Hannover show

The customer response at the Hannover show was very rewarding. Customers wanted to know, “When can I have this?” which led to conversations about pilot installations.

Not surprisingly, many prospects did express concern about the security of IoT devices. Siemens addresses security in their architecture of the MindSphere platform.

Bill Boswell, vice president of marketing for MindSphere, pointed out that, “MindConnect Elements are used to provide connectivity to MindSphere and employ secure communications.  During the on-boarding process, the MindConnect Elements must go through an authentication process with MindSphere. Once this is done, the two entities agree on cryptographic keys for use in further communications.”

Bill explained that a device such as the MindConnect Nano communicates outbound internet traffic over HTTPS connections to the MindSphere Platform, adding, “Today the information flow is always outbound from the connected devices to MindSphere.

Rittal’s Future Plans for Connecting Devices to the IoT

One major benefit of having units permanently connected to the Internet and feeding data is that Rittal will be able to analyze the data to better understand their products’ performance in the field.

For example, the data may identify aberrant behavior, such as unexpected fan speeds or internal temperatures. It may also identify unusual power consumption of individual components, or pressure in the refrigeration circuits.

These data points may not be meaningful individually, but over time they may point to patterns of component failure that product designers can address in future models.

Koetzsch pointed out that there are many immediate benefits that customers can expect from having their Blue e+ units connected to the IoT:

  1. Remote monitoring of the condition of each unit including identification of operating parameters
  2. Continuous live transmission of data from the field helps assess the remaining useful life of components within the unit
  3. Predictive maintenance based on data analysis and hence higher availability of the equipment

Rittal has a multi-step vision for rolling out IoT connectivity.

At this stage, Rittal has not committed to a business model or monetization strategy. Their first step is to simply make the sensor data available for analysis and start to draw conclusions.

Once they understand what additional information they can glean from the data, they will create tools to gain the most value from the data, similar to the tools that were developed for the demonstration. Once these steps are in place, Rittal intends to become a service provider for their products through remote monitoring.

In the more distant future, Koetzsch can see a time when Rittal may sell cooling as a service rather than selling the physical enclosure air conditioner units. At that point, the company could provide a total turn-key cooling service for its customers from installation to monitoring and maintenance.

Setting Up an IoT Test Environment for Your Design Team

There are a number of steps that design teams can follow to set up an IoT test environment.

A typical first task is to look for an inexpensive way to instrument selected equipment and begin to collect the data. IoT platform vendors may be willing to give you some test licenses, but you will likely have to pay for the data collection boxes, of which there are many to choose from.

When speaking of “gateway boxes,” Boswell mentioned that the Siemens MindConnect Nano can manage data input from multiple systems. He stated that a trained engineer will need, “about 15 minutes to connect the devices and configure them.”

These devices then need a platform that will aggregate the data. When you are selecting a platform to test, consider whether it works smoothly with the communication protocols you already have in place, where the vendor’s product roadmap will take you and whether the system is open or proprietary. You will also want to consider the status of the vendor’s APIs, since it is quite likely that you will want to do some of your own app development at some point. 

Popular competitors in this space include Siemens MindSphere, GE Predix and PTC ThingWorx. You can see a more comprehensive list of platforms in this eBook: Comparing Platforms to Add Internet of Things Capabilities to Products.

Once you have data flowing into the platform, you will need applications to analyze and display the data. You may choose to develop your own application as the Rittal team did, or you may decide to start with an out-of-the box application. Apps you might expect to find on a platform include:

  • Fleet management for tracking equipment on a factory floor, remote installations or rolling stock
  • Predictive maintenance
  • Control loop performance analytics to get an overview of factory automation data to process optimization

Over time you can expect an “app store” environment to develop around the main vendor platforms. These can bring extra value to platform users by permitting multiple vendors to sell more targeted apps, much in the way that smartphone users find apps on the Apple or Android stores.

Once you see the initial data, you may even decide to create some use cases and develop a demonstration app for your customers. And just maybe, you can show that to your C-Suite before they come calling. 

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