IoT for Manufacturing: A New Way to Unlock Insights from Field PLCs

IoT for manufacturing

BehrTech Blog

IoT for Manufacturing: A New Way to Unlock Insights from Field PLCs

With global spending on IoT for manufacturing expected to rapidly increase, plug-and-play connectivity is critical to enable companies to integrate legacy PLCs and industrial systems into an IoT environment with ease.

If you’re familiar with the manufacturing world, chances are Programmable Logical Controllers (PLCs) are nothing new to you. Having their roots in the automotive industry, PLCs are omnipresent across all modern industries today and akin to the brains of factory automation systems. While coming in many shapes and forms, industrial PLCs are used for a common purpose – real-time production control. A PLC gathers data from thousands of input sensors, processes it and triggers automated actions on the corresponding output device like actuators, alarms and switches. Besides manufacturing, PLCs are also an integral part of most building automation systems.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) disrupts the industrial world, integrating legacy equipment with IoT connectivity becomes paramount. While some might question whether IoT will eventually replace PLC systems, seeing these two as mutually exclusive options isn’t the way to go. Indeed, given massive operational data concentrated in a PLC, being able to interface it with an IoT architecture could unlock unprecedented visibility on the factory floor. Not to mention, PLCs have gained their credit as a robust, versatile automation instrument, and it doesn’t look like manufacturers will move on without them anytime soon.

The PLC Challenge in IoT for Manufacturing

Until recently, IoT-enabling PLCs had been a major undertaking. The explanation is simple. Invented in the previous century, they weren’t originally designed to be connected to an external system. PLCs might be able to communicate with each other or to a local dashboard at best, but their core functionality is real-time control, not remote networking. As such, data flows within PLC-managed automation networks are closed-loop and stay locked on the factory floor. On top of that, most, if not all, older PLC models employ a plethora of proprietary, vendor-specific protocols that hamper interoperability and data exchange. As PLCs are intended for several decades of use, it’s not uncommon to find these older models dominating a standard manufacturing facility.

Next-gen PLCs do not come without networking challenges, either. Many of them provide built-in Ethernet capabilities and an onboard web server to be directly plugged into the Internet. Nevertheless, running cables around factories is expensive, dangerous, and conducive to production shutdowns. In many outdoor, geographically dispersed industrial settings with challenging topography (e.g. open-pit mines), Ethernet wiring isn’t even an option. Also, PLC web servers require a case-by-case configuration to enable data sharing with an IoT system.

Despite the common understanding, not all PLCs are really integrated into the factory-level Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. Doing so often requires complex, error-prone PLC reprogramming alongside cumbersome wiring which cost several weeks of production downtime. Certain SCADA systems are even proprietary and only compatible with PLCs from a specific vendor. This complicates the implementation of a unified remote monitoring network for cross-vendor PLC models and protocols.

Plug-and-Play Connectivity for IoT in Manufacturing

With the rise of advanced IoT technologies, connecting legacy PLCs is now much less of a hassle. Emerging plug-and-play solutions can help you easily IoT-enable your PLC without invasive hardware modifications and inefficient, labor-intensive cabling. Such a solution brings together two major pieces of the puzzle: a retrofit integration gateway and robust, long-range wireless connectivity. Using automation-specific protocols, the integration gateway interfaces with a legacy PLC to acquire critical data points. An IoT transceiver, connected with the gateway on the other end, then transports the data to a remote base station through a reliable wireless radio link, minimizing cable needs.

IoT for manufacturing

With a versatile solution, you can have a wide range of supported PLC models and physical interfaces to choose from, enabling scalable and cost-effective implementation of a larger monitoring and control system. At the same time, it allows you to select only the most essential PLC data tags for sending, instead of burdening your backend with influxes of useless information. The wireless connectivity must also be designed for rebar, structurally dense industrial facilities with heavy radio interference from running equipment and existing networks.

Besides simple and flexible implementation, an optimal PLC integration solution fulfills other critical requirements of your IoT deployment. It renders you with complete data control and ownership to decide whether to keep data entirely on-premises, forward it to a third-party cloud/ application platform for further analytics, or adopt a hybrid approach. Equally important, it ensures the security of your critical automation networks through a one-way wireless link and end-to-end data encryption. As legacy industrial systems were built with few security functions in mind, one-way data transfer from the PLC helps avoid attempts to remotely control machines through reverse communication.

Harness PLC data for Real Operational Values

Providing IoT connectivity for legacy PLCs enables companies to close the OT/IT gap and unlock real-time visibility into their operations. Previously, it used to take days or even weeks to collect data and generate operational reports from legacy industrial systems. With this delay, it’s often too late to handle an issue and costs can quickly escalate. Now, real-time insights allow businesses to timely pinpoint and act on bottlenecks to optimize processes and reduce costs. You probably know that in manufacturing, even a small improvement can make a big impact on the bottom line.

Below are some of the best examples of how you can leverage PLC data to augment operational efficiency:

  • Monitor machines and equipment and get alerts when anomalies are detected (e.g. motor overheating and excessive vibration, conveyor jams, valve/ pipelines leakage).
  • Execute predictive maintenance through data modeling and machine learning.
  • Oversee production rates and counts, cycle time, changeovers, scrap rates…to trace sources of performance losses (i.e. speed, availability and quality).
  • Monitor fill levels of tanks and silos for just-in-time refills or emptying.
  • Track energy consumption of equipment and systems to identify waste sources.
  • Automate data collection for FDA and OSHA audits in industries like pharmaceuticals and food and beverage.

Given their established role in the industrial world, PLCs are poised to play a major role in IoT for manufacturing. With the advent of plug-and-play connectivity, updating brownfield PLCs for IoT is no more an expensive and daunting task. By breaking down data silos and tapping into unprecedented operation insights in real-time, the opportunities to enhance operations and bolster your competitive edge are endless.

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MYTHINGS Smart Sensor: 10 Powerful IoT Applications

smart sensor

BehrTech Blog

MYTHINGS Smart Sensor: 10 Powerful IoT Applications

This week, we announced the release of the MYTHINGS Smart Sensor, a demo platform to demonstrate MYTHINGS’s long-range, robust and power-efficient IoT communication. The MYTHINGS Smart Sensor is not just a powerful pilot test tool; with our reference design offering, it is also available for mass production and full-scale IoT deployments.

The MYTHINGS Smart Sensor is a self-contained, battery-powered unit with multi-sensing capabilities including accelerometer, temperature, humidity, pressure and GPS sensors. But, its most intriguing feature is that you can tailor these sensing functions to your specific needs. Depending on your use case, any of the sensing units can be switched off accordingly to drastically reduce power consumption and improve battery life. On top of that, the sensor also provides the option to collect custom payload through an open serial interface, delivering great deployment flexibility.

The Smart Sensor can be either affixed to an existing object or system to collect condition data (e.g. machine vibration and temperature, asset movement etc.) or installed as a stand-alone unit to collect your preferred ambient data. There are numerous scenarios where the sensor will prove to be a valuable part of your IIoT initiative and help you to improve processes and asset utilization, reduce costs and enhance safety. Here are 10 powerful IoT applications that can be enabled by the MYTHINGS Smart Sensor.

1. Indoor Climate Regulation

Thermal and humidity comfort is a major contributor to employee productivity at both commercial and industrial workplaces. The problem is, while temperature and humidity distribution are uneven across a large building, heating and cooling settings are often uniform and do not reflect actual indoor conditions. This could lead to occupancy discomfort and excessive HVAC use and energy waste. With the MYTHINGS Smart Sensor, you can capture real-time room temperature and humidity readings on a micro-zone level to accurately regulate the HVAC system within a large facility. Constant indoor climate monitoring also helps detect bottlenecks like a malfunctioning furnace or air conditioner at distinct building zones.

2. Machine Health Monitoring

Machine vibration can reveal a lot about its current health status and issues such as misalignments or loose parts. Using the accelerometer in the MYTHINGS Smart Sensor, you can constantly monitor vibration patterns of critical equipment to identify potential damage and execute maintenance in good time. Another way you can use the Smart Sensor to ensure machine health is by keeping air moisture in check. High humidity can cause condensation and corrosion in equipment, while overly an arid atmosphere can lead to frictions in electronic components. Monitoring and maintaining the room humidity within the industry-suggested range of 35% and 65% can help keep these problems at bay.

3. Optimization of Production Processes

Environmental conditions have a significant impact on industrial. For example, in auto manufacturing, fluctuating temperatures can cause inconsistent fluid injection or impact the quality of 3D printed components by accelerating the cooling phase. Continuously measuring ambient temperature and humidity on the shop floor helps circumvent unwanted environmental changes that potentially disrupt your production. Combining machine vibration and ambient data with recorded process parameters further unveil hidden inefficiencies that lower production output.

4. Cold Chain Monitoring

Beyond the production stage, many perishable products in industries like pharmaceutical and food and beverage, require a strictly controlled storage condition. By installing the MYTHINGS Smart Sensor in your storage facility, you can ensure the relative temperature and humidity are within the ideal range to avoid property distortion and optimize product lifetime. Continuous observation of the thermal trend also enables you to quickly pinpoint and act on issues such as, a door unintentionally left open or a cooling equipment failure.

5. Off-Road Fleet Management

Management of vehicles distributed over a large industrial premise can be a great challenge. Older fleets often come with limited, if no telematics ability at all. In this context, MYTHINGS Smart Sensors provide you a versatile option to IoT-enable your fleet without a costly overhaul. Simply attach the sensor on your vehicle and collect its vibration/acceleration data for analysis of moving, idling and engine-off time. With this visibility, you can uncover fuel waste sources due to excessive idling, or detect unauthorized vehicle uses outside the operational time. Having information on actual vehicle utilization at hand, you can also make strategic, informed decisions on the fleet size and composition.

6. Temperature Control in Data Centers

At a data center, excessive heat released from servers can shorten their lifetime by overloading inner fans, increasing energy use and even imposing fire risk. Due to the dynamic heat emission, measuring the overall temperature is less of a concern, but more importantly identifying specific hot spots within the server room. Low-power MYTHINGS Smart Sensors enable you to collect granular, rack-by-rack temperature data to create an accurate data center heat map for effective control measures.

7. Asset Tracking

Knowing where your assets allows you to streamline operations and improve productivity. With its GPS function, the MYTHINGS Smart Sensor can collect position data of any distributed asset on your industrial campus. In indoor environments, GPS signals can be unstable. Here, air pressure and accelerometer readings can help determine vertical and horizontal movements to a certain extent. This enables dead reckoning calculations from knowing the last GPS location.

8. Anti-Theft Protection

The accelerometer in the MYTHINGS Smart Sensor can also be a great instrument for anti-theft protection. For example, it can inform you if an important asset that should be stationed is moved. Just install the sensor on your critical asset and get notified when a suspicious movement is detected.

9. Intrusion Detection

Besides theft detection, the Smart Sensor can be part of your IoT-enabled security system to detect intrusion at night, outside operational hours or in areas with restricted access. By affixing the sensor to the outer edge of a door, acceleration of the door can be measured when it opens. Having an emergency workflow set up, an alarm can be then triggered to inform you of the potential intrusion.

10. Electrical Fire Safety

Electrical failures are the leading cause of fire incidents across commercial and industrial facilities. While useful in detecting overheating caused by circuit issues, infrared inspections of electrical panels and cabinets are typically done on an annual basis. This leaves power systems unattended for most of the time. With a Smart Sensor permanently fixed to the electrical enclosure; you can keep an eye on thermal changes in your distributed power system round-the-clock. Elevated temperatures can quickly be diagnosed for counteraction to prevent fire hazards.


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IoT Rapid Prototyping with Plug-and-Play Solutions

IoT Rapid Prototyping

BehrTech Blog

IoT Rapid Prototyping with Plug-and-Play Solutions

New development tools are giving rise to IoT rapid prototyping that requires minimal resources to validate your solution ideas

Building a market-ready solution requires significant time and money, not to mention the arduous certification process. No matter how confident you are with your idea; the stakes are high with many unanswered questions. Is it technically viable in a real-world environment? What features are customers looking for? Can all of these features be integrated into the final product? How easily can users interact with the solution? The list goes on.

That’s why all development journeys should start with prototyping. Rather than representing a full-fledged product or solution, a prototype incorporates only the core functionality and is built with inexpensive components. The goal here is to validate the feasibility of the product design, identify potential pitfalls and relevant modifications in the most-efficient fashion.

Rapid Prototyping in the IoT Era

From a strategic perspective, a prototype is a great foundation for executing an IoT Proof-of-Concept (PoC). Testing a prototype during the PoC phase, solution providers can ensure their product design and features are aligned with actual market needs. At the same time, IoT adopters can better assess whether the IoT solution is a good fit for their companies. The iterative prototyping process goes hand in hand with the feedback loops and testing cycles until the solution’s technical and commercial viability is fully ratified.

In the fast-changing IoT world, rapid prototyping has progressively taken the stage. Tech projects used to take years to move from conception to market. But in today’s incredible speed of technological advancement, companies simply can’t afford such long cycles. Rapid prototyping comes in handy as it involves minimal development time and costs while providing great flexibility in integrating adjustments along the line.

IoT Rapid Prototyping
5 Main Steps in the Recursive IoT Rapid Prototyping Process

IoT Rapid Prototyping with Plug-and-Play Tools

Often times, IoT prototypes don’t resonate with production-readiness. To keep up with the agility in rapid prototyping, you’ll probably prefer ease-of-use, flexibility and out-of-the-box, customized functionality over mass-scale availability of development tools. This means the hardware chosen for your prototypes most likely won’t be the same as what you end up with for production.

Companies like MikroElektronika have captured this specialized need by providing off-the-shelf tools that make IoT rapid prototyping easier than ever. Their mikroBUS™ open standard defines the physical layout of mainboard sockets and add-on boards used for interfacing microcontrollers or microprocessors with integrated circuits and modules. Simply put, the mikroBUS standard turns IoT hardware prototyping into a Lego play – where you can easily mix and match various available embedded modules on different compilers and development boards.

As it is an open standard, any vendors, or literally everyone can integrate mikroBUS into their board design. Microchip Technologies, NXP Semiconductors, Quectel and Avnet are just a few examples of vendors who’ve endorsed this standard. With hundreds of mikroBUS-compliant development and add-on boards available today, developers have the possibility to create numerous combinations of sensors, wireless transceivers, displays, amplifiers, interfaces and more. And it doesn’t just stop there. The ecosystem is growing year-by-year, giving you the best chance to build a prototype that fully caters to your use case.

But a prototype isn’t just about hardware. As with any functioning IoT product, it needs an embedded software and demo application that regulate its operations. Writing an application code is a demanding process. IoT devices come with even greater complexities, making any future changes almost impossible. Adding to this, a written code only supports a specific platform or microcontroller-unit (MCU) it was originally intended for. So, if you want to add new features and updates to your prototypes based on customers’ feedback, you’ll most likely have to completely rewrite the code.

Again, the mikroSDK (Software Development Kit) standard has provided a great solution to this challenge. MikroSDK specifies a set of standardized coding rules for developing the application code. By following this standard, you can make your application code reusable on any existing and future supported platforms and architectures, with virtually no hassle of code changes. Performance optimization and future upgrades are also much easier with a mikroSDK-compliant code.

Get Started with the MYTHINGS Rapid Prototyping Module

If you’re familiar with our MIOTY™ LPWAN technology and now want to prototype and test your IoT solution with MIOTY protocol, the MYTHINGS™ Rapid Prototyping Module by BehrTech is a great starting point. At its core, the module is a mikroBUS-compliant, preconfigured MIOTY RF click board. As such you can mix and match it with any other mikroBUS click boards of your choice, to quickly build your tailored sensor prototype. In our example rapid prototyping workflow, the hardware set up can take as little as one hour. We also provide a click library for mikroSDK to help you compile your mikroSDK-compliant application.

To wrap up, rapid prototyping tools now enable you to put your IoT ideas into a preliminary tangible product and verify its feasibility with minimal time and cost. An efficient prototyping process is the cornerstone for your product development journey, helping you chart next steps and quickly move to market with success.

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