How to connect legacy machines to the Industrial Internet of Things?

We explore the retrofitting of IIoT technologies to machines from pre-digital generations

The IIoT retrofit route to Smart Manufacturing

Time marches on and what was once the pinnacle of manufacturing now looks like it belongs in a museum. It’s truly a shame, as these established machines, that are the backbone of businesses are built to last and every bit as reliable as the day they were purchased. 

Now, we’re in a new age: the digital age and legacy machines of yesteryear lack vital services that businesses rely upon to stay competitive. Retrofitting new technologies may be the quickest and cost effective solution.

We’re talking about the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s a simple concept: objects connected to each other via gateways and to internet servers. Smart bulbs, smart homes, and smart fridges are some examples of IoT. It’s now commonplace in our lives and it’s growing every year.

The global Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) market size is expected to grow from US$76.7 billion in 2021 to US$106.1 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 6.7% during the forecast period*. 

*Source: Markets and Markets, July 2021.

Why connect legacy machines to the Industrial Internet of Things?

The Manufacturing Digital Productivity Report from iBASEt, supported by The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), concluded that 56% of UK manufacturers are losing sales due to a lack of digital investment, and 93% say underinvestment will lead to many UK manufacturers going out of business in the next decade.

What kind of quick wins should you expect from an IIoT deployment? As an example, it allows manufacturers to securely monitor and control machines remotely. Instead of manually starting and stopping them every day they can simply be scheduled to start and stop during operating hours via remote monitoring. 

Not only does this save energy but it also saves manpower. The additional benefits of smart manufacturing lies in the data that is collected. By analysing a machine’s attributes such as heat, vibration and power consumption you can identify when there is a problem that necessitates intervention, saving your business from potential disaster. 

Many manufacturers still use pen-and-paper methods to record factory floor performance. Operators may handwrite notes for every batch-run with other process notes documented every hour and at the end of each shift. Reams of handwritten notes may then be transposed to Excel for further analysis. This whole process takes a lot of time and effort yet produces untimely, inconsistent and inaccurate results that are prone to many calculation and interpretation errors.

IIoT equips you with continuous, real-time data and dynamic reporting tools. Instant calculations can be performed to provide you with key performance metrics like Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), the gold standard for measuring manufacturing productivity.

Further details relating to the benefits of IIoT can be found in our last news item: How can the Industrial Internet of Things help your Manufacturing Business?

First steps to connect your legacy machines

The gains in connecting legacy machines to the Industrial Internet of Things saves businesses time, money, and resources whilst also helping to design better products. But where do you start?

1. Define your goals

Like all projects, starting off with a comprehensive plan and clear outcomes will put you on the road to success. Ensure your goals are measurable by KPIs. This will give you a strong foundation to build on.

2. What information does your business need to collect?

You’re not collecting data just for the sake of it, you want to make absolutely sure that this data has a purpose. Talk to everyone involved with a stake in the manufacturing process. This exercise should not just be limited to your production staff, engineers and quality team. Your sales, marketing, customer service teams are likely to be immersed in customer feedback relating to their needs, wants and expectations. A finger on the pulse of how production impacts your brand, revenue and your bottom line that would have otherwise been overlooked is really useful. Your legacy machines are good, but they may not be perfect, and you might already have some goals in mind to improve their efficiency. The IIoT analyses, categorises, and summarises data in real-time and allows you to refer back to it often.

3. Perform a machine audit

Make a list of all the legacy machines you wish to connect to the IIoT. Look at these machines and make sure you know exactly what data you want to collect and how you can collect it reliably. It’s advisable to always select a machine that can be used for an initial trial installation and ‘proof of concept’. This is an iterative process where testing and tweaks to the configuration of both device firmware and IoT platform software assures that you will get what you want from your IoT investment whilst ensuring a more rapid factory-wide deployment.

4. Connecting legacy machines to your IIoT solution

Some machines can be easily upgraded to connect to your network. Machines controlled by a PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) may provide some or all of the data you need and interfacing is straightforward. Others, like analogue machines, may require sensors, adapters and connectors. These can be off-the-shelf items for just a few £s, $s or €s, or sometimes custom-built devices or sensors are required. The addition of SBCs (Single Board Computers) like the SanCloud BeagleBone® Enhanced can also provide edge computing power and decision-making if required. Its onboard memory also protects against data loss in the event of an internet outage. It can also facilitate the introduction of an HMI (Human Machine Interface) or barcode/QR code scanners providing factory floor traceability and workflow data.

5. Site Infrastructure implications

Now it’s time to thoroughly consider your facility’s infrastructure. It may not be set up for the internet and, this being the Industrial Internet of Things, is a critical part of the process. You may not want to or be able to rely on Wi-Fi as it can be unreliable given most factory floors house lots of metal machines and potential electromagnetic interference. This could be a big issue if your internet frequently drops out, so you’ll need ethernet and cables running to your machines. Depending on your machine inventory, some or all can be connected over a serial interface like RS485 or RS232 using Modbus, Profibus and CANbus communication protocols. Later equipment may be connected by USB or network interface. The extra cabling can pose a health and safety hazard so seriously consider all angles. Talk to your IT department to make sure you have the right digital infrastructure such as routers and Internet speed in place. We can help you ask the right questions or ask on your behalf. With the ability to extract data and communicate with your machines, a reliable method of internet connection, you now need to establish a secure communication protocol with the IoT platform. This is usually done through numerous protocols: MQTTS, HTTPS or COAP to name a few.

Data driven insights and decision making

Now that your legacy machines are connected, your smart manufacturing setup is complete. You can now extract, analyse and visualise data for your processes and gain meaningful insights. Congratulations, your manufacturing operation has joined the 21st century. 

If all this sounds overwhelming, or you don’t have the time to commit to such an extensive and time-consuming project, then contact SanCloud. By building and installing Industry 4.0 solutions that enable real-time control and monitoring of production processes, we assist organisations in their digital transformation to smart manufacturing.

Our Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions can be implemented across all types of manufacturing industries and applied to various processes and functions, increasing overall equipment effectiveness to 89% and lowering maintenance costs by 13% year over year.

If you’ve already started your journey toward smart manufacturing, then we offer the best-in-class SanCloud BeagleBone® Enhanced (BBE) range of Single Board Computers, which are low cost and easily deployable with user-friendly configurable options. Pair this with our SanTrack IoT Web Platform for easy and powerful data collection, processing, visualisation and device management.

Find out more about IIoT

No matter where you are on your IIoT journey, we can help. Contact SanCloud today to see how we can bring you up to speed.