Paths to IIoT — The Gateway to the Industrial Internet of Things

The German economy is seeking its way into Industry 4.0. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is the topic of the hour. It is already evident that business will not work without digitization. However, according to a McKinsey study, SMEs still have significant problems finding the right approach.

Every second mid-sized company sees digitalization as a great opportunity although, for German companies, McKinsey forecasts a 126 billion Euro increase in more added value by 2025. In other words, anyone with the courage and an innovative spirit can quickly gain a competitive edge. Everybody else is in danger of being left behind. In order not to lose out, the industry should now plan its approach and open up to new processes of integrating IIoT. To do so, it plays a vital role to what extent a company can establish agile structures and thus, at least in parts, become a start-up once again.

In IIoT projects, the willingness to embrace innovation and not the return on investment should be the top priority. Instead of extensive and strenuous planning, IIoT is all about the spirit of discovery. Step by step, the business model is to be developed in a creative process. The work method “Sprint”, for example, is particularly helpful. This approach, developed by Google Ventures, is designed to help companies answer the most critical questions in just five days. First, agile teams need to plan their initial steps and develop small objectives that are then reviewed. This is followed by a rapid prototype, which is intended to serve as an additional source of ideas. Afterwards, “series production” begins — at least in theory.

In practice, however, the whole thing often looks quite different. Instead of an agile process allowing a change of direction, companies rarely deviate from their chosen path. By doing so, there is the danger of committing to a partner far too early. IIoT development is characterized by the fact that models change again and again. So, if you settle too soon on an IIoT platform, for example, the technology may not be as future-proof as initially anticipated. For this reason, it is better to start with individual solutions, such as a micro-service architecture, in which different services can be exchanged or expanded at a later stage.

For a company, it is no longer enough to be agile in a single project instead of transforming the entire way it operates. Thus, speed is created which is essential for competitiveness and already the norm in software companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. The industry must also accept and internalize this way of working to be able to operate in a customer-oriented manner. Traditionally, requirements were set to plan the entire project as accurately as possible. After that, engineers developed for two to three years without obtaining feedback or making any adjustments in between. Customers today expect their feedback to be address and implemented swiftly. What consumers are already accustomed to is now rapidly evolving into an industrial requirement.

Agile transformation is a necessary prerequisite for success. However, IIoT is, of course, mainly concerned with technical applications. It is, therefore, worthwhile to present the essential terms that are already being discussed today.

Microservices describe a software architecture that is based on many small and self-contained services. In contrast, monolithic software centralizes all functions. Here, development takes place on a platform or technology. This creates dependencies on a specific platform, programming language, protocols or company.

A microservice is a sub-function of a larger system. For example, a microservice for predictive maintenance can predict breakdowns based on existing machine data, regardless of interface or technology. Another microservice might visualize the data, while yet another application reads out data from a machine and writes it to data memory.

Besides, a microservice is always self-contained and can be created using any technology. Only the communication interfaces to other systems need to be defined, but they can also be implemented in any programming language. A company can adapt, enhance or even replace individual microservices independently of the entire system. As a result, independence from different technologies or platforms is achieved. This is particularly important in the IIoT environment, as only a few standards or platforms have been established so far and organizations need to adapt flexibly and autonomously to change.

One of the essential prerequisites for IIoT applications is data collection. Based on this information, it is possible to calculate, e.g., when the next maintenance is due or how a department can better plan and automate its workload. To monitor these data, visualization is crucial, because, without it, data cannot be utilized.

User interfaces and simple navigation, as known from the B2C sector, are also relevant for B2B. Nowadays, every user is accustomed to using smartphones and handy user interfaces in the private sector. So in business, why should one work with outdated interfaces that slow things down? For B2B software, productivity is paramount. So far, however, this is not the case on standard machine interfaces. Consequently, many developers are primarily concerned with programming meaningful applications that visualize and interpret data conveniently, without requiring any specialist knowledge on the part of the user. Visualization can take various forms: from virtual images of the machinery (3D models, simulations) to the simple representation of sensor values, their histories and trends (e.g. temperature plots).

Why is the industry preoccupied with industry 4.0? For a very good reason: hardware can be enhanced with additional services at relatively low cost. An elevator, for example, is much more than just a mechanical device today. While the software makes it possible to monitor and control the system, the company can simultaneously schedule maintenance work in advance. On top of this, the system may automatically re-order potential wearing parts and provide additional data on uptime, cycles or loads, which includes valuable information on visitor traffic within the building.

With digital services, companies can tie customers to themselves much stronger. This, of course, translates into more revenue, be it from additional license fees or automized spare parts ordering. Besides, something is emerging that has played a rather minor role in the industry so far: Customer experience. Software lets customers get excited about industrial hardware. The interactive visualization of tangible assets on a tablet or mobile phone creates entirely new possibilities for intuitive operation.

Asset management is the digital representation of plants and their components. Initially, asset management does not take place in a networked manner, but rather at a central location. Asset management might be intelligent, but it does not have to be.

Through end-to-end intelligent asset management, a company keeps track of all its assets (parts, machines, equipment, orders or products) and collects data on these assets. Their digital availability facilitates evaluations, analyses and tests. Those responsible can identify potential sources of error at an early stage, keep an eye on efficiency and can apply predictive maintenance algorithms.

Using the example of the elevator, the manufacturer can tell precisely which screw was fitted at which point, where it came from, who ordered it and much more through asset management. The company thus has a complete overview of its assets and knows how efficiently they run, how many parts are produced, when the next elevator is to be delivered and even how production capacity will be utilized in the future. Moreover, the manufacturer can monitor the digital services of its elevators during operation.

Also, the data collected on all assets allows an assessment of equipment efficiency. This parameter reflects how efficient a production process is and how the equipment is utilized.

Executive Board Member elunic AG // Industry 4.0 & IIoT Solution Firm

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