How to Implement an IIoT Platform in Your Manufacturing Plant

By Megan Ray Nichols

Devices utilizing the Industrial Internet of Things are changing the industry by providing plant managers with valuable, minute-to-minute data.

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Data is more valuable than ever, and as a result, manufacturing plant managers are turning to Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices and sensors to provide minute-to-minute data regarding their manufacturing processes. These days, more than 45 percent of manufacturers in the Americas have already implemented IIoT technologies into their factories.

If you’ve taken note of the rise of data-driven manufacturing, you may be interested in adding the IIoT to your factory. At the same time, you may be confused as to how you should implement it, or why many industry experts recommend using additional technology, an IIoT platform, to manage your IoT fleet. Implementing IIoT technology into a manufacturing plant isn’t intuitive, especially if procedures and workflows are already well-established—in many cases, an IIoT platform will be necessary. Luckily, there are ways to face the challenge of implementing an IIoT platform in your manufacturing plant.

Why Use an IIoT Platform?
IIoT platforms manage the fleet of IIoT devices in a manufacturing plant, a task that is often impractical or impossible for a plant to manage or coordinate on its own. These platforms handle the device- and data-management side—pulling, aggregating and storing data from the fleet of IIoT devices in a plant—as well as the analytics side, offering insights about the information collected by a plant’s sensors. Some IIoT platforms may also natively integrate with third-party data services that augment their analysis with data about the weather, prices of commodities and raw materials, and the overall state of the supply chain.

IoT devices are notoriously difficult to secure, especially at the enterprise level, and at the levels you see in a manufacturing fleet. IIoT platforms often come with some security features that help manufacturers keep confidential or private plant data safe. For operations with a smaller number of IIoT devices, in-house solutions may be manageable; however, such systems are not scalable and aren’t typically cost-effective in the long run compared to a platform. Without an IIoT platform, it would be difficult or impossible for plant managers to coordinate the large number of IIoT devices in a given plant and to properly store IoT-harvested data in a way that allows them to analyze it.

State of the IIoT Platform Market
When it comes to IIoT platforms, manufacturers have a wide variety from which to choose. There are, however, three major players to familiarize yourself with if you want to incorporate the IIoT into a manufacturing plant: PTC, Software AG and Hitachi. These companies’ platforms are, for the most part, general-purpose IIoT platforms. Manufacturers can rest somewhat assured that these large, pre-packaged solutions will be reasonably robust. For example, Software AG’s platform supports more than 150 pre-integrated devices designed to operate via more than 350 industrial protocols, meaning native connectivity with a vast number of industrial devices.

However, in other cases, a large platform might mean yoking your plant to a specific manufacturer. Client reviews have reported that Hitachi’s Lumada platform, for instance, is less efficient when running on non-Hitachi IIoT devices. In many cases, working with larger providers may also mean buying an entire solution—and, as a result, having less control over equipment and a less niche, vertical-specific design. In general, larger providers are more likely to have strong security features and offer the broadest range of support for industry-standard IoT devices. Meanwhile, smaller providers are more likely to be niche options—good fits for specific verticals and implementations.

Gartner’s 2019 Magic Quadrant provides a good overview of the main IIoT platforms, as well as other, more niche platforms that may be a good fit for specific plants and processes. In any case, no IIoT platform is the “right” one—instead, each has distinct advantages and disadvantages that can make it a better fit for some manufacturing plants and processes.

IIoT Platform Implementation Strategies
Plant managers should begin with a clear objective—a problem they hope to improve with a data-driven solution. Then, they should identify the components they need, the industrial devices they want to track and the data they expect to collect from their IIoT devices. Manufacturers should select a platform based on compatibility with the industrial devices already present in their factory. They should purchase IoT devices that will help them collect valuable information about their machines.

Before installation, plant managers should also identify how their IIoT devices will communicate with each other. Wired connections are a reliable and secure option, but are costly to implement and not particularly flexible. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 4G are wireless options with unique advantages and disadvantages, and 5G may soon be a possibility as well, depending on your location. Once plant managers have selected a platform, they will need to integrate it into existing manufacturing workflows. This implementation process can pose a few different challenges, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be difficult or disruptive.

Managers may need to prepare for a phasing-in process, by which they only partially rely on an IIoT platform. In some cases, platforms cannot supply all the functionality plant managers need, and they will need to augment their technology with additional third-party application programming interfaces (APIs) and other software. You may not know if this will be the case until after the platform is live and involved in day-to-day plant processes.

Implementing IIoT in Manufacturing
IIoT devices—and the platforms that run them—are changing manufacturing by providing plant managers with valuable, minute-to-minute data they could never have collected before. Plant managers will need to face some challenges if they want to implement IIoT technologies in their plant, however. They’ll need to identify a specific inefficiency or problem to combat, choose the best platform for their situation and be prepared to phase IoT into the workflow, accommodating any unexpected weak spots. The data these platforms and devices provide, however, are often worth the trouble.

Megan R. Nichols is a STEM writer who contributes to sites like Sensors Online and EPS News. Megan has also published easy-to-understand manufacturing and engineering articles on her personal blog, Schooled By Science. Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter.