From Brownfield to Digital Factory: 3 Ways to IoT-Enable Your Legacy Systems

IoT-Enable Your Legacy Systems

BehrTech Blog

From Brownfield to Digital Factory: 3 Ways to IoT Enable Your Legacy Systems

With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), industries around the world are undergoing a major digital transformation. In their 2017 research, Capgemini reported that smart factories could contribute an annual added value of $500 billion to the world economy in the next five years. They also found that overall productivity is expected to increase by at least 27% each year, and smart factories could account for up to 60% of all manufacturing plants by 2022.

As optimistic as it sounds, the realization of smart factory initiatives is inherently challenging. One of the first and biggest hurdles is found right where IoT starts – gathering operational data at the edge and communicating it to the cloud.

Most legacy assets, machines, and facilities across industries were not designed to connect beyond plant networks, creating huge data silos within the factory. This leaves companies with two choices: building entirely new, greenfield plants with native IoT technologies or updating brownfield facilities for IoT connectivity.

The first approach is very cost-prohibitive. Typically in auto manufacturing, a greenfield smart factory setup is estimated to cost from $1 billion to $1.3 billion – around 200 times as much as a brownfield. Besides, as industrial systems are very capital intensive and often have a long lifespan of several decades, completely replacing them is not a choice for most manufacturers.

So how can you transform brownfield plants into digital factories of the future? Below we explain three practical ways to IoT enable your legacy systems and harvesting multi-level operational data – from machinery and process data to environmental data.

1. Retrofit Assets and Equipment with IoT Sensors

With a drastic drop in sensor prices in the last few years, outfitting existing infrastructure with new IoT sensors is probably the most cost-effective way to aggregate a wide array of data on the shop floor. In this context, an IoT gateway – capable of collecting data from field sensors and communicating them to the cloud using standard application protocols like MQTT – is often required.

Isolated, “stand-alone” industrial assets (e.g. tanks, pipelines, valves, etc.) – with little or no prior sensing and communication capabilities – can now be retrofitted with smart sensors to become IoT-ready. IoT sensor networks can also be deployed to monitor and control facility-wide environmental factors that influence various production processes and product lifecycle. The emerging Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) have garnered growing industrial interest for its ability to affordably and power-efficiently connect massive IoT sensors, over long distances and in physically hindering conditions.

Alongside built-in connectivity, many current IoT sensors offer multiple sensing capabilities – from temperature, humidity and pressure sensor to gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer – in a single device. A typical example is micro-electro-mechanical sensors (MEMS) introducing smaller size, less power consumption, and higher accuracy. These sensors offer a convenient, plug-and-play solution to acquire a multitude of operations parameters with a minimum hardware requirement.

2. Enable Existing PLCs with IoT Connectivity

Even before the emergence of IoT, sensors, and actuators had already been widely adopted for real-time automation and controls of many industrial machines and processes. These automation systems – managed and supervised by Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) – generate vast amounts of production data that can be analyzed to derive actionable insights.

Today, most brownfield PLCs and associated sensors operate in a local, closed-loop environment – without any capability to exchange data with the outside world. Since all process information is concentrated in the PLCs, getting them connected to the Internet would be a major leap in integrating existing operations systems into the Industrial IoT (IIoT).

While modern PLCs often come with an Ethernet interface, most, if not all older or less expensive PLCs adopt an almost bewildering range of serial communication and proprietary protocols. Any redesigns or modifications of PLCs to integrate add-on IoT connectivity or relevant interfaces are seemingly unfeasible due to the extreme complexity and potentially long production downtime.

Instead, a converter – that can both interact with and extract sensor data from PLCs using automation-specific protocols, and communicate these data to the external world leveraging wireless IoT connectivity – could be employed. Such a converter acts as an IoT edge node capable of data communication to the cloud through an IoT gateway. This approach is particularly handy for remote PLCs with wiring constraints – involving minor changes and almost no interruption in functioning systems.

Of course, you always have the choice to completely substitute older PLCs with state-of-the-art, cloud-capable devices newly offered by major vendors like Siemens, Schneider, and WAGO. But the substantial investment and associated downtime can’t be underestimated

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3. Substitute Remote I/O Units with IoT-Connected Ones

Another way to IoT enable legacy systems without sophisticated and expensive PLC-reprogramming is to replace I/O modules with IoT-ready ones. I/O units are not necessarily embedded in a PLC and can be located farther away – in which case, they are referred to as Remote or Distributed I/O. Today, there are more and more possibilities to retrofit new, remote wireless I/O units in brownfield controls systems.

For example, TE Connectivity and SAP are jointly working to deliver an I/O device which has intrinsic cloud connectivity while being able to re-use existing physical connectivity to communicate with the legacy PLC and sensor. It can extract relevant sensor data and transfer them directly to the IT system. Likewise, Advantech has introduced the new WISE-4000 family with WLAN capability to their remote I/O product category. With continuous advancements in IoT communication technologies, future generations of wireless I/O devices are expected to constantly evolve – offering other innovative connectivity solutions.

Upgrading brownfield plants is a practical entry point on the path to digital transformation. Whether you choose a single approach or a combination of these three approaches, it all comes down to a reliable, cost-effective and least complex retrofit solution.

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Mesh vs Star Topology – How to Find the Right Architecture for Your IoT Networks

Mesh vs. star topology

BehrTech Blog

Mesh vs. Star Topology – How to Find the Right Architecture for Your IoT Networks


A network topology defines the way various components communicate with each other within an IoT network. Topologies can vary greatly in security, power consumption, cost, and complexity. Before choosing and implementing a communication technology, it is important to first understand which topology is most relevant to your IoT applications and requirements. In this blog, we compare mesh vs star topology – the two most common architecture types for IoT wireless networking.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: [IIoT Survival Guide] Low-Power Mesh Networks vs LPWAN – What You Need to Know

Mesh Topology

In mesh networks, a message hops from one device to another in order to reach its destination (e.g. a gateway). A sensor node, serves as both an endpoint that captures and transmits their own data as well as a repeater that relays data from other nodes. In a partial mesh network, only selected nodes have the repeater/relaying function and are connected with more than one other node, while in a full mesh network, all nodes are homogeneous and fully interconnected to each other.

Mesh topology is widely employed to extend the coverage of short-range wireless technologies such as Zigbee, Z-Wave, WirelessHART. Most mesh networks have a self-healing capability as data can be re-routed using another path if one repeater node fails, thereby enhancing robustness.

If enough repeaters are installed, you can cover large areas like an entire industry campus or a commercial building using mesh configuration. Nevertheless, since the range between two nodes is very short in nature, the number of required repeaters increases rapidly, making these networks very expensive to install. In many cases, extra sensor nodes must be added, not to capture data, but simply to attain the desired coverage.

Redundant device density and excessive numbers of connections significantly complicate network setup, management and maintenance activities. Complexity greatly hampers scalability and despite low transmit power, the relaying nature of mesh networks imposes very high power consumption. Nodes must constantly be “awake” and “listen” to whether a message needs to be relayed. High relaying traffic through one node can also quickly drain its battery.

Another major concern over mesh networks is their vulnerability to security attacks. If a single repeater is breached, the entire network collapses. The larger your IoT network, the more repeaters – or better said – the more possible points of attack. When it comes to full mesh networks where all nodes act as the repeater, you may want to think twice before installing one.

[bctt tweet=”Mesh networks are a great option for consumer applications like smart home HVAC systems and lighting automation.”]

Star topology

An alternative approach to wireless IoT networking is star topology whereby all sensor nodes communicate to a central hub/access point (i.e. a gateway). Technical design of the central hub is much more sophisticated to handle huge amounts of data flowing to it.

Thanks to one-hop, point-to-point connection, star topology is much simpler and less expensive to implement compared to mesh topology. Network security also increases, as endpoints operate independently of each other; if a node is attacked, the rest of your network still remains intact.

The primary disadvantage of star topology is that the network footprint is limited to the maximum transmission range between devices and the gateway. However, choosing the right communication technology can help overcome this problem. For example, a Low-Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) with an extensive range of over 10 km line-of-sight will enable vast coverage when deployed in star topology.

LPWAN star networks are optimized for minimal power consumption and can secure years of battery life on the sensor side. Unlike mesh topology, nodes are not required to be continuously “awake” to listen and relay data from other nodes. Outside of transmission time, they can fall into “sleep mode,” consuming almost no power.

[bctt tweet=”If you want to connect thousands of sensors distributed over geographically dispersed facilities, LPWAN using star topology is the better choice.”]

So which topology is the right one for you?

The answer is very simple: It all comes down to your IoT applications.

For example, Zigbee, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth mesh networks can be a great option for applications in the consumer marketplace. Smart home use cases such as HVAC and lighting automation often require smaller coverage areas with a limited number of endpoints positioned close to each other.

Mesh topology is also a viable solution to extend the footprint of legacy Wi-Fi networks – available in literally every single house nowadays – without exploding costs or involving sophisticated network management. High bandwidth usage in many consumers applications like video calls and streaming, voice control, etc. further makes Wi-Fi mesh most feasible if you’re looking for one integrated home network.

On the other hand, if you want to connect hundreds or thousands of sensors distributed over geographically dispersed campuses and facilities like factories, mines, oilfields or commercial buildings, LPWAN using star topology is the better choice. It provides a reliable, cost-effective and easy to deploy and manage solution. Configuring and optimizing mesh networks, on the contrary, can be an extremely daunting task in this case.

Still wondering which combination of network topology and communication technology best suits your needs? Visit our blog on 6 Leading Types of IoT Wireless Tech and Their Best Use Cases.


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3 Compelling Use Cases for LPWAN in Auto Manufacturing

LPWAN Solutions for IoT in Manufacturing

3 Compelling Use Cases for LPWAN in Auto Manufacturing

In 2017, around 73.5 million cars were produced worldwide, which is more than 200,000 units daily. What’s more striking is that global automobile sales surpassed 79 million in the same year and are expected to reach over 81 million in 2018, resulting in a staggering 150% increase from 2014. While this creates lucrative business opportunities, this ever-growing demand also places pressure on automakers. Enhanced operational efficiency, guaranteed product quality and on-time delivery are a necessity to stay ahead of the competition.

As IoT and other digital technologies infuse new DNA into the automotive industry, investment in technology becomes critical in helping automakers secure their competitive edge. Unsurprisingly, a large number of global players have already embarked on their digital transformation leveraging trends like autonomous and connected cars, fleet management, vehicle telematics or driver assistance.

Nevertheless, Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs) – one of the key IoT enablers and a potential transformation engine – still remain an entirely new realm for many auto manufacturers. Now, you may be wondering: “What value will this family of technology bring to my business?”

Have heard of Industry 4.0? That’s the answer! While Industry Ethernet protocols may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of industrial automation, LPWANs – in fact – have established their own position in the smart factory. Geared for low-cost communication of telemetry data from innumerable, battery-operated sensors at the edge, LPWANs are set to empower a new layer of operational transparency and efficiency enabled by advanced cloud analytics.

Below are three compelling use cases of LPWAN in auto manufacturing:

1. Process optimization with environmental monitoring (e.g. temperature, air quality…)

Many automotive production processes are considerably influenced by environmental factors on the shop floor. For example, even a slight presence of dust particles in the atmosphere can cause paint defects, impairing the quality and consistency of a car’s paint job. Likewise, an increase in temperature at filling stations can cause volume expansion of the fluids, resulting in excessive fluid injection.

By transmitting data from numerous environmental sensors on the factory floor, LPWAN can help maintain the optimal ambient conditions for all manufacturing processes.

2. Condition-based monitoring and predictive maintenance

Predictive maintenance is a core pillar of Industry 4.0 and no other communication technologies can beat LPWAN when it comes to cost-efficient connection of massive embedded sensors to the cloud. Constantly monitoring various “health” parameters of machinery and assets allows for early detection of any operational deviations or anomalies. Maintenance can be effectively scheduled as required to avoid asset failure and costly production downtime.

3. Safeguarding worker’s health and safety

Extreme temperature and humidity or high concentrations of volatile organic compounds all impose substantial risks to worker safety. By utilizing LPWAN-enabled sensors and wearables, plant managers can keep track of their employees’ health and working conditions round-the-clock. Corrective measures can be taken upon first sign of dehydration, fatigue or other health-related issues to improve worker wellness and productivity.

Digital transformation in the automotive industry is manifold. While autonomous vehicles and connected cars promise to deliver a transformational customer experience, it is important not to overlook the other intriguing facet of IoT in optimizing manufacturing efficiency and productivity – right at the start of the product lifecyle.

Want to learn more about the robust LPWAN tailored for Industrial IoT and Manufacturing?

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