System integration enables Industrial Internet of Things, Industrie 4.0 platforms

Data mining and analysis tools can improve operational decisions within the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industrie 4.0 platforms, and that happens more effectively with system integration, explains Michael Gurney, CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a 2016 System Integrator of the Year.

By Michael Gurney June 9, 2016

System integration is among the enabling tools of the Industrial Internet of things (IIoT) and the Industrie 4.0 platform. Through 23 years in systems integration, I’ve learned the importance of focusing on a scope of work that produces measurable results. IIoT has emerged as an important consideration for investment by offering the possibility of using ever-increasing amounts of data to make operational decisions. Given the quantity of available data, and the multitude of ways to use that data, managers will be wise to take the time to establish the return on investment (ROI) they want from the data they choose to mine.

Minimal, viable product

Concept Systems uses a term that applies to implementing IIoT: Minimal, viable product (MVP). To explain, many software products that promise to deliver on the IIoT have a large footprint and come with a lot of costly bells and whistles that don’t add much value. They are designed to be all things to all people and to collect all the data and generate all the reports imaginable. This level of robustness requires a large investment to implement and a lot of time to do it right.

What often happens is the investor loses patience with the cost to implement and gives up on the idea before the value is ever realized. It’s better to focus on the essence of what must be accomplished and use software with a small footprint that is scalable.

Probably the best kept secret of the IIoT is the existence of these lean, scalable, foundational software packages. With this approach, it’s easier to build a solid foundation that provides an immediate ROI, while giving clients a way to add functionality in a cost-effective, efficient manner.

IIoT roadmap

It all starts with the MVP and developing the roadmap from there. A lot of data can be found on the plant floor. It’s possible to plug into every piece of equipment and capture every data point in the cloud. That may be the ultimate destination but be mindful that it takes a lot of work to mine data, put it into an actionable construct, and analyze it to improve performance.

A roadmap simply identifies how to get there—in smaller discrete projects—and minimizes risk of losing the investment along the way. This approach provides rapid, incremental returns on investment.

For instance, consider a steam generation power plant with eight boilers. Uptime and downtime would be valuable, so let’s start with those. I can store that data in the cloud and get a status report at any time, on any device, local or on a mobile. It’s a small investment in IIoT, yet I get actionable data that is of real-time value. With the software tools in place, it is now easy to build on that foundation, to collect that next piece of data, and expand the value of the reports. With a few small projects, available mobile, real-time information includes uptime/downtime, fuel usage, and power output trends. 

IIoT application example

A client that transports high-value goods by air between factories finds that it’s critically important to load and unload parts properly. An installed software appliance on the loading/unloading equipment logs precise position during these operations. If any damage occurs during flight, it’s easy to review the log (like a digital video recorder that replays the sequence) and verify that damage was not due to loading or unloading.

With this information, corrective action can happen quickly, avoiding repetition of costly errors. With these foundational pieces in place, it is now easy to add those next data points that add value.

Industrie 3.0 brought automation to the plant floor with "brains" in programmable logic controllers (PLCs). They monitor work flow and operate entire lines from one box.

Industrie 4.0 promises to open the plant floor to a tremendous amount of data with smart devices, in many cases wireless-enabled, being able to provide resident data beyond what the PLC has traditionally received.

The shift moves from data concentrated in a controller to having access to every configurable and monitored parameter in every device hanging on a network with an IP address. Those smart devices host a lot of information, which opens up a lot of opportunity. But again, it’s important to identify what data to look at, collect, and how to use and manage it.

Data availability, info analysis

If you thought you had a lot of data in your PLC and have been struggling to figure out what to do with it, brace yourself, more is coming. It can be navigated effectively, but you need to plan and manage how you use the data.

Rather than embarking on a quest to collect even more data, why not consider doing more with a smaller subset of data? One exciting aspect of all this newfound data is the ability to use statistical process control (SPC) in new ways. SPC allows us to monitor and potentially control devices to ensure reliability by predicting anomalies that lead to failures. SPC can be set up to monitor normal operation on any data point and detect statistical variances that identify problems well before they become unscheduled downtime. Predictive maintenance is a great example of a solution that does not drive the need for more data; but rather it’s a tool to get more out of the data. Look for opportunities like this, before just mining more data. 

Technology value

New technologies certainly improve automated control systems, because we can gather and analyze more data, and do it more precisely and faster. That also means that we have to be clear about which data provides high value and what’s most critical to ensure a smooth line. Taking the time to develop a roadmap will allow manufacturers to integrate data collection in a way that provides the greatest ROI.

Make it a gradual process to receive significant returns on each phase of making the system function effectively. That’s how system integrators will use IIoT and Industrie 4.0 to once again transform the plant floor.

Michael Gurney is CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a 2016 System Integrator of the Year. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key concepts

  • Establish ROI goals for IIoT.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed with everything; take a usable subset.
  • Have a plan for data collection and analysis.

Consider this

It’s easy to get overwhelmed in data; make a plan to use a smart subset to improve operations.

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Concept Systems Inc. is a CSIA member as of 6/29/2016

Author Bio: Michael Gurney is president and CEO of Concept Systems Inc.