Benefits of Turnkey IoT Production Monitoring: Better Than Custom Solutions

Vertical integration from sensor to cloud creates a powerful, scalable factory IoT.

What’s the best way to maintain machines, minimize downtime and increase throughput of your factory equipment?

Many manufacturers still rely on preventive scheduled maintenance, inspecting and replacing key components such as bearings, sensors or motors regularly to reduce the risk of unplanned failure. Another common approach is to keep an inventory of replacement parts and fix breakdowns as they occur.

Sensor-based machine monitoring and machine health analysis are powerful tools for monitoring machine status, allowing manufacturers to make smarter decisions about maintenance and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), what was once done with analyzer field kits or complex SCADA systems is now possible in real time with WiFi-connected sensors and cloud-based monitoring software.

Predictive maintenance. (Image courtesy of Define Instruments.)

Predictive maintenance. (Image courtesy of Define Instruments.)

However, advanced industrial IoT presents new challenges. With thousands of sensors and connection points across even a single facility, building and maintaining a stable production monitoring solution can be a monumental challenge.

For the largest manufacturing companies, taking on a massive custom integration project involving network infrastructure, sensor hardware, connection hardware, machines and controllers, and a maintenance-intensive ERP platform is possible.

For smaller companies, a simpler solution is required.

Today’s manufacturers, especially small and medium-size businesses, want to access the insights of an IoT solution without a complex, costly and opaque system. One of the main challenges of an IoT implementation lies in integrating a long list of hardware and software products from different vendors and suppliers.

According to Dallas, Texas-based Define Instruments, its vertically integrated approach to cloud-based IoT solutions eliminates the interoperability issues, ballooning costs and project delays that plague custom integrations. spoke with engineers from Define Instruments to learn more about this approach.

Why Put an IoT System in Place in Your Factory?

According to Anthony Glucina, president of Define Instruments, “IoT monitoring takes the guesswork out of the health of your machinery. It provides data about how machines are working and how efficient the processes are. It also provides insights into trends about energy usage of machines or periods when components need servicing or replacing. Without an IoT-connected system, maintenance is typically based on best guess or on a regular service schedule. With monitoring you can identify when machines need maintenance.”

Production data can also provide traceability for defects. For example, a poor surface finish on units in a run of machined parts can be correlated to sensor data to identify one machine which is operating out of spec. This can save time and cost identifying the problem and reworking parts.

Another benefit of machine monitoring is the ability to maximize OEE across a range of machines, while maintaining uptime. For example, if one machine will soon need maintenance, work can be redistributed to other machines while maintenance is done, preventing the machine from breaking down in the middle of a job.

At a higher level, this type of monitoring also benefits the manufacturing company as a whole by enabling comparison of machine throughput and downtime within a single facility, as well as the benchmarking of machine performance across multiple facilities.

IoT-enabled production data collection can provide many benefits, but getting a system in place can come with significant challenges.

Set Goals to Define What You Want Your IoT Solution to Provide

Understanding the needs of the production system is essential before beginning a production monitoring implementation project, especially if working with a system integrator or solutions provider.

Being able to communicate clear goals about OEE, productivity or downtime helps focus the provider’s expertise on the things that actually matter in your project.

For example, you may want to monitor the health of several conveyors in a plant to prevent line stoppage. This goal will enable a service provider such as Define Instruments to identify the best solutions for your project.

“Even if you don’t start with specific goals, you may have an idea of pain points or bottlenecks,” explained Phil Roberts, marketing manager at Define Instruments. “Those are easy to identify because they are things that plant managers are dealing with regularly. What are the ideas and opportunities related to making a process better, cheaper or less of a drain on resources?”

Common Problems, Difficulties and Roadblocks on the Custom Integration Path

According to Roberts, one of the most difficult challenges that frequently occurs during custom integration projects is that it can be difficult or impossible to fully understand the problems or limitations of a product—such as a smart sensor or a gateway device—until you’re already too committed to the product to easily replace it.

Multiply this by dozens of components in a solution, and this issue can easily destroy the budget or schedule of your project. Time and money spent up front can minimize the risk of “too far along to go back” mistakes.

In addition, Glucina pointed out that during troubleshooting of even a basic connectivity issue, it can be difficult to access support. For example, if a smart sensor module will not reliably send data to your cloud platform, should you call your cloud software provider or your sensor vendor?

(Image courtesy of Define Instruments.)

(Image courtesy of Define Instruments.)

Simplify Your IoT Project

In many cases, production monitoring IoT projects are championed not by executive leadership, but by production managers and engineers on the shop floor. For an engineer pitching IoT-enabled production monitoring as a continuous improvement project, it’s critical to consider the path to success before becoming responsible for the project.

For example, how confident are you in the budget and timeline that the project will require? Which vendors and products are best for your application? These are difficult questions to answer, which is one of the key benefits of working with a single, vertically integrated provider of turnkey IoT solutions, such as Define Instruments.

“Our products are custom designed with our system and our application in mind,” explained Glucina. “By contrast, as a typical system is integrated, they may take someone else’s product that’s the closest fit they can find, and then adapt it. Our products are scratch built for what we want to do with them. So that means we can build specific features into the hardware and ensure they work in an industrial environment with all of the signals and interference and those sorts of obstacles.”

Aside from the implementation of an IoT-connected production monitoring solution, simplicity and ease of use are also critically important to the continuing success of the project after it’s up and running. While “simple” often means “reliable,” after-sales support is still essential. Ad hoc solutions can complicate the problem-solving process, as vendors may implicate other vendors. Partnering with one single company that understands your network tip-to-tail simplifies support and troubleshooting.

To learn more check out the Define Instruments website,  or visit them at stand #484 at IoT Tech Expo Nov 13-14, 2019, Santa Clara CA.

Define Instruments has sponsored this post.  All opinions are mine.  –Isaac Maw