The rise of the machines is happening. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – that is, the introduction of connected sensors and devices, and platforms or engines to analyse the data they collect, to warehouses and factory floors – is transforming how industrial organisations design their processes and products.
How? By capturing previously untapped information, and then drawing together those disparate data sources and analysing them to drive tangible business insights – insights on anything from the organisation and logistics of a warehouse to the performance efficiency of individual machines.
That drawing together is a key point. One of the crucial characteristics of the IIoT is the integrationof multiple data sources – which, ultimately, is why systems integrators (SIs) can play an important role in enhancing IIoT projects.
In this Insight Guide, we’re delving a little deeper into this role, exploring how SIs can make the difference between failure and success of an IIoT project – and turn small successes into big ones.
Fundamentally, systems integrators in the IIoT have the same brief that they have in any other context. Their role is to is join together multiple subsystems as cleanly and smoothly as possible, to create interoperability between disparate hardware and software and ensure that information and instructions can be passed and harnessed effectively between them. Wider wraparound responsibilities include ensuring data security and compliance throughout these integration processes, and collaborating with multiple vendors, manufacturers and other third parties to ensure a seamless approach.
Imagine, then, an industrial or manufacturing business deploying IIoT technology for the first time. They understand the basic principles – they need to install connected sensors and devices throughout their environment, and deploy an analytics platform to manage the data collected – but the practicalities of these installations can be extremely complex. This is where SIs come in. But let’s take a closer look at the ways in which they can make a critical difference.
An obvious point, perhaps. But it is important to consider precisely why they are so complex. The typical manufacturing unit or factory contains a multitude of machines from different suppliers, many of which were never intended to touch each other. They rely on different control systems and different protocols. Any data they do harness may be required in different formats. In other words, an enormous degree of compatibility and interoperability is required in order to enable these different elements to plug into the same centralised IIoT platform and applications. No IIoT supplier can offer a single end-to-end solution to deal with this complexity in every context, because industrial and manufacturing environments are so diverse. SIs can make the critical difference.
More than many other enterprise environments, manufacturing and industrial organisations tend to deploy hardware that is years or even decades old, because the cost and complexity of replacement is so high. This, of course, is why the proactive maintenance enabled by the IIoT is so valuable, because it extends the useful lifespan of valuable assets. However, it also means that deploying an IIoT ecosystem in the first place often requires an ability to work with legacy, unsupported and discontinued hardware. Systems integrators are experts at working with equipment from different suppliers and different eras.
Information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) are, in many traditional manufacturing settings, disparate and siloed departments. Little if any information is shared between them, and almost certainly not in a dynamic, real-time way. The staff manning both departments may rarely meet or share strategy, and the enterprise systems used by the two are usually different.
Yet the IIoT, fundamentally, aims to connect these two functions (and others), creating a shared and centralised intelligence source for the entire organisation. Connectivity and sharing is, of course, the business of an SI.
It is almost always advisable to begin an IIoT project with a pilot in a key focus area of the business, rather than trying to implement an ecosystem throughout the entire factory floor. Systems integrators are generally in an ideal position to work on scalable projects, because they begin with an in-depth understanding of the entire plant. They can therefore retain a broad perspective from the outset, and predict future challenges or bottlenecks more easily than other IoT vendors and suppliers. This is particularly helpful for multi-site manufacturers, who may want to launch an IIoT project in one factory and then roll it out to others.
The core of an IIoT system is, as outlined, a network of sensors and devices and a single centralised analytics platform or engine. Between them, these generate a feedback loop, allowing data analytics to drive tangible actions. However, this relatively simple process can easily be augmented on the factory floor with a wide range of additional transformative technologies. Automation and robotics, for example, already play a key role in many factories, but the smartfactory can extend both processes. Data processing and analytics can be automated, whilst robots can be made to respond more intelligently to their unique environments and contexts. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can enable elements of the IIoT environment to enhance and optimise themselves. The blending of the physical and digital world engendered by augmented reality, and the possibilities of 3D printing, are having a significant impact on manufacturing processes, and can be combined with the IIoT. These technologies can make the smart factory even smarter – but integrating them with an existing (or new) IIoT ecosystem is not straightforward. Again, this is a task for a specialist SI.
Generally speaking, IoT solutions providers are experts in their own connected and smart solutions, rather than the practical deployment in a factory setting. They will, of course, understand the broad principles of operations and challenges within the environment, but are less likely to be familiar with the applications used throughout the business and the particular nuances of the sector. Sector-specialist systems integrators, by contrast, are likely to have much deeper knowledge of the environment – as well as broader exposure to multiple projects and organisations, so that they can build clear business cases and predict potential stumbling blocks. They might even be able to recommend changes to the IoT product and application design in line with industrial needs.
Above all, it is important to remember that the Internet of Things is still a brave new world for many industrial and manufacturing organisations. They may have used the same vendors – the same basic technology – for years or even decades. They are used to third party suppliers who are used to them – partners to their industry, with great breadth and depth of industry knowledge. By contrast, IoT suppliers are young businesses, often without a long pedigree in those industrial sectors.
Systems integrators, then, can provide a critical bridge between established manufacturing and industrial businesses, and the IoT innovators who understand how to capture brand-new data from across their environments. Just as they connect disparate parts within technology ecosystems, so they can connect disparate parts between IoT clients and providers. And this, truly, can be the difference between failure and success.