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IIoT Case Study: It ain't always sexy, but it's certainly smart

Dec. 8, 2020

The most common applications of IIoT are driving digital transformation by making equipment and processes smart.

Sierra Wireless' Olivier Pauzet

Digital transformation. When applied to industry, this phrase often summons up futuristic visions of workers fixing equipment using augmented reality headsets, completely automated manufacturing facilities with nary a worker in sight, or self-driving trucks speeding down the nation’s highways.

Yet, as many industrial companies are increasingly realizing, digital transformation does not have to look like a science fiction movie for it to deliver a great ROI. In fact, one of the major ways companies are using digital transformation to change the way they do business is with IIoT applications that extract and transmit to the cloud data from industrial equipment.

Thanks to the emergence of new IIoT all-in-one infrastructure solutions, companies are finding they can rapidly develop and quickly deploy these types of applications, and use them to generate actionable insights from equipment data that allow them to solve some of their most vexing business problems.

The washing machines we produce constantly break down. Our mobile air compressor has been stolen from a construction site, and is currently located in a warehouse on the other side of town. Our neighborhood bio-waste garbage can needs to be emptied.

It is  issues like these—and the IIoT applications that resolve them—at the heart of what we consider “smart” manufacturing…connecting to the cloud and digitally transforming how we do business today.

Using the IIoT to detect leaks in liquid fertilizer tanks

A new liquid fertilizer tank-monitoring application exemplifies this type of digital transformation.

Liquid fertilizer tanks are an essential piece of equipment in the agricultural industry. Owned by large farms and fertilizer-distribution companies, these tanks can hold millions of gallons of the fertilizer that farmers use to improve their crop yields. But if these tanks have leaks it can lead to big problems—repair charges totaling more than $100,000, as well as costs associated with lost fertilizer, contamination cleanup services, and government fines.

IoT application developer Ekatra, working with Heartland Tank Services, a liquid-tank product and services provider, saw an opportunity to use the IIoT to address this problem. Specifically, their new IIoT application would collect nitrogen fertilizer concentration, temperature, pressure, drain-liquid level and other data from tanks and send it to the cloud. Using Heartland’s liquid fertilizer tank expertise, Ekatra planned to then have the IIoT application analyze this data. If this analysis determined a tank was leaking, the application would alert the tank’s owners, operators, and service companies. They even planned to have the application automatically close the fertilizer tank’s intake valves if the tank was at risk of being overfilled.

Accelerating digital transformation by simplifying IIoT infrastructure

Until recently, building such an IIoT application was complicated. In particular, companies needed expertise in a wide variety of complex subjects—embedded software, industrial-communication protocols, wireless-cellular communications, IoT cybersecurity and cloud APIs—if they wanted to be able to build the infrastructure needed to extract data from industrial equipment (like liquid fertilizer tanks) and wirelessly transmit it to the cloud.

Fortunately, new all-in-one solutions provide companies like Ekatra with all this IIoT infrastructure, removing the need for them to acquire this expertise themselves. With this infrastructure in hand, they are free to focus on just building the IIoT application itself.

For example, rather than build a custom Modbus interface between their fertilizer-tank sensors and the IoT gateways needed to transmit this sensor data to the cloud, Ekatra was able to use an IIoT infrastructure solution’s built-in communications protocols to quickly integrate their sensors with the IoT gateways.

In addition, these all-in-one solutions often include gateways pre-provisioned to automatically connect to encrypted wireless cellular network. This delivers Ekatra and its customers a secure connection for transmitting data from the IoT gateways to the cloud, and eliminates the need for Ekatra and its customers to set up and manage wireless plans with multiple Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

These all-in-one solutions can also include cloud APIs. Using these APIs, Ekatra was able to quickly integrate data from the tanks’ IoT gateways into their cloud-based IoT application platform in less than two days.

Just as the cloud has simplified IT infrastructure for companies, enabling them to focus on developing innovative applications rather than managing and scaling IT infrastructure, so have these new all-in-one solutions helped companies like Ekatra simplify IIoT infrastructure. As a result, Ekatra was able to develop and commercialize their IIoT liquid fertilizer tank-monitoring application in three months—half the time they think it would have taken if they had to build this IIoT infrastructure themselves.

Smart equipment is changing the way industrial companies do business

Ekatra’s story show how industrial digital transformation today mostly involves collecting and using data from equipment to solve basic business problems—leaking fertilizer tanks, malfunctioning commercial washing machines, stolen mobile air compressors, overfilled rubbish bins.

It might not seem as exciting as using augmented-reality headsets to repair machines, automated factories, or self-driving trucks. But, by making their equipment smart, it is these new IIoT applications that are changing how industrial companies do business today.

Olivier Pauzet is vice president of product & IoT solutions at Sierra Wireless