Smart Factory: Cheaper software, cloud hosting spur smart-tech investments
Manufacturers are increasing their investments in smart technology as the benefits of computerizing factories receive attention.
Companies, including RtTech Software, Oracle, Rramac Connected Systems and Relayr, are developing and selling software and services that make possible the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT). As prices for software and hardware drop, the technology is becoming affordable for smaller companies, including many plastics manufacturers.
One of the factors driving lower costs is the availability of secure cloud hosting from companies like Microsoft, Google and Oracle. In the past, only large companies could afford the expensive servers needed to store and analyze data. Also, wireless sensors eliminate the need to have cables running throughout plants to connect sensors to a server, which can be costly.
Companies selling IIoT software say it can increase productivity by optimizing machine performance, and improve operational efficiency by providing for predictive maintenance and remote management.
The IIOT is an array of connected industrial systems that communicate and coordinate actions based on data analytics to improve production performance and efficiency, especially when paired with real-time data, said Brett Lewis, a spokesman for RtTech.
“Essentially, it’s a group of individual pieces of equipment that all work together, such as an assembly line, but these pieces of equipment have their own unique problems which can affect the productivity of the overall operation.”
If the devices are connected through the internet, they can share individual data to show operators when there is an issue, he said. Industrial analytics applications monitor and track the data of each piece of equipment and provide real-time analytics to help companies avoid equipment downtime and boost revenue.
While some fear IIoT technology will replace workers, Lewis argues that it empowers them and makes them more efficient. He compares IIoT software to the phone booth that allows Clark Kent to become Superman.
“Without the phone booth (IIoT), we would just have a regular old reporter at the Daily Planet,” Lewis wrote in a recent blog post on the company’s website.
RtTech sells two pieces of analytics software — RtDuet and RtEmis— its Cipher IIoT platform.
The Cipher platform collects data from machines using information from PLCs or external sensors. Cipher then filters out the data a company doesn’t care about, saves the data a company wants and pushes the information to a remote server in the cloud. The company encrypts the data and uses Microsoft servers for security. Filtering the data as it is collected minimizes storage costs.
The company’s analytics software then interprets the data and offers suggestions for improvements. RtDuet analyzes how the equipment is performing, tracks downtime, predicts upcoming maintenance issues, identifies the cause of equipment failures and determines whether a machine is operating optimally. RtEmis tracks energy use and costs, and can identify unusual power consumption and help identify the reason for spikes.
While some customers are concerned about whether data stored on the cloud is safe, Lewis said the company takes steps to increase safety. For security, it uses encryption and Microsoft servers.
“Data security comes down to the reputation of the third party you’re dealing with,” Lewis said. “A lot of people like their data stored in-house so they are entirely in control of their data. But the way I view it is, your data, once it leaves your organizations, is as secure as the reputation of the companies you deal with.”
He compares the risk to that of using online banking or banking apps.
“You are sending your data wirelessly to the cloud,” he said. “It’s the same concept. But the reason you feel comfortable doing it with mobile applications is because you trust your bank. You trust them to take care of your information.”
While predictive maintenance is one of the most commonly cited advantages of IIoT technology, much more is possible, said Atul Mahamuni, VP of IIoT applications at Oracle.
One of the other things companies should consider is how IIoT can help address larger problems like supply-chain optimization.
“You can’t just think of your manufacturing in isolation without thinking about how does your transportation and logistics work and what is the stock or inventory level in the warehouse,” he said.
Oracle has software that can help companies coordinate all those operations, he said.
He recommends that manufacturers interested in adopting IIoT technology first determine their goals. Do they want to eliminate unplanned downtime? Increase productivity by a certain amount? Integrate what is happening in a production plant to the supply chain? Once they determine their goals, they can decide what types of data to collect rather than collecting all available data, which can be expensive and overwhelming. Most of the data collected likely would go unused, and collection and storage can be expensive.
“Start with the business outcome, then think back about what analytics and algorithms you need for those outcomes, and then figure out what data you need to collect,” Mahamuni said. “That would lead to a more accelerated, successful deployment.”
IIoT technology can help plastics manufacturers with purchase-activated manufacturing, or PAM, Mahamuni said. PAM, also known as demand-based manufacturing, is “essentially hyper-customization,” where a manufacturer is producing a large number of very small lots. For example, a plastics manufacturer might receive a large number of orders for a very small number of particular parts — say only 10 or 20 or 100 units. Or a customer might order a fairly large number of injection molded cell phone cases but want a variety of colors in small lots. IIOT software can automate the switchover more quickly than the production lines can be manually reconfigured, and with better quality control, he said.
Oracle regularly upgrades and expands its IIoT portfolio, and in February it unveiled four new cloud-based products that can be integrated with Oracle supply-chain applications:
• IoT Production Monitoring Cloud connects to PLC controllers for production machines, such as injection molding and extrusion machines, to monitor production equipment to assess and predict manufacturing issues
• IoT Asset Monitoring Cloud monitors assets including heating and cooling systems, forklifts, temperature controllers, and light controllers with connected sensors
• IoT Fleet Monitoring Cloud monitors position and progress of passenger, service and delivery vehicles and driver behavior
• IoT Connected Worker Cloud tracks employees to support safety, service and regulatory-
Oracle takes cybersecurity seriously, Mahamuni said, adding that threats in recent years have become more sophisticated. Oracle provides cloud services for some of the nation’s largest banks, stock exchanges and many government agencies.
“We have the kind of security experts that a typical 100- to 500-people manufacturing company just cannot hire,” he said. “Many manufacturers are moving their data to the cloud today because that’s where you are starting to see far more sophisticated security technologies applied to data in the cloud than what you can do for your offline on-premise data. Data in [the] cloud is more secure and can be combined with other supply-chain data to create digital transformation solutions.”
Rramac sells the EdgeScout remote-monitoring and asset-management system.
“The big thing, the most tangible benefit, is reducing downtime,” said Tom Craven, Rramac’s VP of product strategy. “It can give you alerts, text, email or smart-phone push notifications to the right people quickly with detailed information. It can also provide the history of what led up to that particular fault and dashboards that may help you diagnose what that particular issue is.”
The remote monitoring system also tracks data that can maximize throughput and quality, he said. It can identify whether certain parameters are operating out of the normal range. It also can analyze conditions that might lead to one plant operating more efficiently than a similar plant.
The system requires an initial registration fee and an annual subscription that includes comprehensive and secure data storage with access to customized reports, dashboards and notifications. A variety of routers or cellular remote terminal units can be used to collect data from PLCs and wireless sensors and transmit the information to the cloud.
Rramac realizes some clients prefer on-site servers and will work with those servers under certain conditions, but Craven said cloud hosting has numerous benefits.
“From a security standpoint, cloud data storage can be just as secure and, in many cases, it is more secure,” he said.
And projects can be up and running in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost since companies don’t have to invest in servers and security software.
“The difference is, when cloud-hosted, we can get customers up and running in weeks,” he said. “Internal systems can take months, often more than a year.”
Cloud storage allows a single secure connection into a facility or multiple facilities, he said. With an in-house data-storage system, every remote user needs access into the plant. So, cloud storage can isolate those users from getting into the internal network. In addition, servers operating in the cloud are typically a secure data center with controlled physical access, redundancy and backup power. Those features can be difficult to achieve with an on-site server, he said.
Data collected frequently include vibrations, current fluctuations and machine temperatures, but what’s measured varies according to company goals. Craven repeated a concept put forth by other experts in the field: Don’t collect data for data’s sake.
“It costs money to collect data,” he said. “There is configuration and storage. You have to realize that collecting data and not acting on that data is a waste of money and a lost opportunity.
“What you want to do is have specific goals in mind, both short-term and long-term. The short-term goals should have tangible ROI [return on investment]. The long-term goals also would have return on investment, but they are things that might be harder to quantify or less profitable. So, again, you want to go after that low-hanging fruit, whatever that might be in your application.”
Rramac has offered cloud hosting for a decade and introduced EdgeScout in late 2015, but the offering undergoes frequent updates, Craven said.
Manufacturers have had access to a lot of information about how their machines performed because of data collected by PLCs and through HMIs for decades, but the intelligence was all local. There was no way to consolidate the data in one central location.
“If we can connect them and get information remotely, we can do a lot better with efficiency,” said Guneet Bedi, VP and GM of Relayr in the Americas. Relayr is based in Berlin and Boston and has additional U.S. offices in San Jose, Calif., Phoenix and Atlanta.
IIoT software allowing remote access can help companies better measure their performance indicators and compare, for instance, how plants in separate locations are faring.
“That really is what industry 4.0 is doing,” he said. “It is taking it one step further and getting a lot of remote data off these machines.”
One of the most important things Relayr software can help measure is operational equipment efficiency. Is a particular piece of equipment running at 90 percent efficiency or only 50 percent? If it isn’t operating at a high degree of efficiency, why not?
“That’s one thing that industry 4.0 or IIoT can really help with,” he said. “If I can increase my efficiency and produce more with the exact same infrastructure, that’s one big advantage of smart manufacturing.”
Relayr software can help a manufacturer increase uptime, he said. He said Relayr helped one manufacturer increase efficiency with a labeling machine. A robot stuck a label on a part and then trimmed the label with a knife. The line would replace the blade after a certain number of cuts, but the system wasn’t effective.
“Depending on the day and the temperature and what it is hitting, the knife would go blunt sooner or later,” Bedi said.
The company discovered that a more accurate means of determining when a knife blade should be replaced was by listening to the sound it makes.
“We were able to put in an acoustic noise sensor and see the trends and create an algorithm of how you can more effectively and intelligently change the blade and not wait for 200,000 cuts,” he said. “You are more effective and there is no downtime. Because if the knife isn’t cutting properly, the line will stop.”
Bedi said the IIoT software can increase efficiency, detect anomalies, assist with predictive maintenance and extend the life of equipment.
“If you can make the factory smart — be it with sensors, be it with collecting PLC data or with algorithms — they can extend the life cycle of their existing machinery,” he said. “We’ve seen anywhere from four to seven years. Equipment is expensive. A robot is not cheap. Sensors and our software are a fraction of the cost of a new robot or a new machine.”
Relayr relies on a combination of on-site and remote server analysis.
“We usually have a piece of software running next to the line on-site, which does a lot of data collection and data modeling,” Bedi said. “Then there is one secure connection from that on-premise site to a data center or to the cloud.”
Using a combination of on-site analysis and cloud analysis gives the user two advantages: It offers one master gateway connection to the cloud, which improves security and reduces costs because less data are being streamed to the remote servers.
“It gives you security because you are only securing one endpoint, and that endpoint has our software, so we can do a lot more encryption and use very strong security going to the cloud,” he said.
Relayr relies on three pieces of software that act together:
• Edge Device Management is installed on a server or gateway on the customer’s site that collects data and manages it locally
• Relayr Middleware, which collects data from PLCs and sensors and feeds the data into the Edge Device Management software
• Relayr Analytics and Insights, which makes sense of the data and puts together algorithmic models on the local server and in the cloud before data are fed back onto a local computer. This software was introduced about eight months ago.
Bruce Geiselman, senior staff reporter
Redwood Shores, Calif., 650-506-7000,
Relayr Inc., Boston,
Rramac Connected Systems,
Plymouth, Minn., 844-477-2622,
RtTech Software Inc.,
Moncton, New Brunswick, 506-383-8534,