Consider this scenario…
You are a plant engineer of a baking operation. You’ve heard buzz that the next big trend is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), but you’re unsure how to get started. Like other emergent technological capabilities, the IIoT is championed by your friends in the information-technologies community—the harbingers of what is possible.
Now, being an engineer, your innovative side is saying “Let's go for it! Sign us up!” But your MRO side is asking, “Sign me up for what? What about the massive infrastructure changes to existing wiring? What about overhauling HMI connectivity and communication software and hardware? What about the cost?”
You’re aware of huge potential efficiency gains with IIoT, but you also know that great ideas that don’t have the capability to go mainstream will not be successful. You remember RFID.
In many areas of operations, new ideas are often brought in from outside the organization—a convincing sales presentation is given, and you are asked to sign up. But as we all know, “the devil is in the details.” Every production process and facility is unique, which a salesman might not fully grasp.
So here’s my guidance: get mentally ahead of the curve (and ahead of the sales pitch) by developing an operational-needs plan for your enterprise. Have this plan finalized before the sales presentation, enabling you to know if the product being pitched is worth buying.
To develop this operational-needs plan, assemble a cross-functional team of in-house subject-matter experts, along with other appropriate thought leaders within your company. Conduct an exercise called “in a perfect world,” in which you review every activity that occurs in a specific production process and list all the items you need to achieve an optimization of your operations.
If your plant has several different operations within the same location, start small and develop this list for just one. Many items will be related to maintenance, engineering, sanitation and production. They are all valuable. But remember you are also looking for items needed on a higher level of abstraction. (This is where strategic thought leaders will help your cross-functional team.)
Once one list is complete, do it for your other operations, then consolidate your findings and consider complementing them with a baseline assessment of current capabilities.
This is where IT comes in. Forward your needs to the information-technology professionals—internal or trusted external providers—to discuss your options. (Your IT exerts are better suited to determining what physical elements will enable the optimizations you need.)
Some needs may be as simple as adding more sensors/counters or some real-time productivity screens; some will be as difficult as adding or modifying your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. These decisions should be made by your team—your IT providers—after developing a comprehensive understanding of your unique needs and capabilities.
Once this needs analysis is complete, a priority determination should be made relative to other capital requirements the plant may have.
And then, hopefully, you will be fully educated…full prepared to ask the “tough" questions when vendors come to pitch you. If you know what you need, rather than the salesman telling you what he thinks you need, your probability of success with your IIoT product is much greater.
Like many other infrastructure upgrades, IIoT additions should be needs-based, substantiated, cost-justified and generated, after sufficient forethought, by the users who will ultimately use them.
And, simply put, they also have to work in your unique environment.
Dale Arnold is retired vice president of engineering at Johnsonville Sausage.