A successfully functioning Internet-of-Things (IoT) solution has a lot in common with a finely tuned orchestra. Sensors, communication protocols, backend platform, integrations, and data outputs must all work together in a continuous symphony. If any component is out of tune, the harmony breaks. While innovations in IoT platform standardizations are reducing the execution risks of IoT solutions, unfortunately, a large percentage of IoT projects still fail. With Industrial IoT (IIoT) projects, difficulties can compound given their unique physical environments and staff dynamics.
Challenges related to the physical aspects of the solution and its components are the most obvious challenges with IIoT projects. However, there are often overlooked potential pitfalls in IIoT projects related to connectivity and integration. Here are three common connectivity and integration challenges IIoT projects often face and how to overcome them.
Vulnerable IT Closets and Infrastructure NOT Receptive to IoT Data
Whether on-premise or cloud based, many industrial companies’ operations don’t often require modern or sophisticated backend systems. Couple this with these companies increasingly becoming the target of cyber threats, and you have a recipe for connectivity challenges with a new IoT system.
To illustrate this point, Hallsten Innovations has worked with a client with an on-premise IT closet that lacked the capacity and necessary security protocols to receive and properly encrypt incoming sensor data securely and consistently. Like many industrial companies, prior to exploring an IIoT solution, the organization simply had little need to modernize its IT infrastructure.
How to Overcome
Luckily, Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon’s AWS platforms make this challenge relatively easy to overcome. They provide off-the-shelf solutions designed specifically to provide the cloud-based backend and mobile/web interface to deploy IIoT solutions relatively quickly and securely. Solutions like Microsoft’s Azure IoT Central and IoT Hub are relatively turnkey platforms that remove a lot of execution risk by filling gaps in the IT infrastructure of industrial companies with dated technology.
Another approach is to avoid the network IT closet all together by bypassing it with a cellular based solution. If the company is unwilling or incapable to make the necessary investment, a cellular solution can be a good alternative solution by controlling the tech stack with highly reliable offerings. To say this in another way, it solves the problem by “controlling your IT destiny”.
Lack of Tech-Savvy Personnel On-Site
While most IIoT solutions can run independently for years, there is often some level of upkeep required to maintain optimal and consistent connectivity. Industrial companies can struggle to identify qualified staff to perform these routine tasks since their sites are made up mostly of production staff. IIoT deployment teams can easily underestimate the level of difficulty with even swapping batteries, sensors or obtaining acceptable up time of the IIoT solution. While this challenge is often most associated with the physical upkeep of the solution, it typically manifests into disruptions in the continuity and quality of connectivity.
Common IIoT solutions like equipment monitoring require high precision sensors and installation. Routine battery or sensors maintenance will often mean removing the unit from its specific location, reinstallation, and validation of transmission and connectivity. Improper reinstallation even an inch or two from the specified location can throw off data readings (at best), or pose a risk of physical damage (at worse). Validation of data capture is often also required on the backend/software side. Even with a proliferation of “plug and play” solutions, this can be a challenge for industrial sites. If not factored early in development, these challenges often create a snowball effect of inconsistent data and difficulties in maintenance that can cause many IIoT projects to fail.
How to Overcome
IIoT project teams must have a deep understanding of the context and stakeholders that will interact with the system. This may mean collecting drawings of equipment to be monitored, floor layouts, profiles of the staff on-site, environmental factors, and even internal and external wall and building materials. This information will help inform the team on how to balance ruggedness/durability, modularity, and accuracy in the final design. It will also help inform a management plan that factors the unique aspects of the solution and its client. Most importantly, it will help identify who will be responsible for maintenance and upkeep. For companies who own and manage their location, facilities staff are oftentimes the ideal person. Incorporating virtual or onsite training for these individuals can go a long way towards ensuring project success.
Large, Remote Locations with Varying Degrees of Wireless Coverage
Industrial locations are notorious for being located in dead zones where cellular coverage can be sparse. While this is improving to some degree through infrastructure projects to increase broadband to remote (especially rural) areas, wireless remains a significant challenge for many. If there are breaks in data transmission and/or latency issues, it can make common IIoT use cases requiring near real-time transmission a challenge.
Additionally, industrial facilities can span multiple football fields in length with varying coverage throughout different parts of the building. Not to mention, data transmission through concrete block and metal barriers can diminish signal strength and overall coverage.
How to Overcome
This is another common challenge that is becoming increasingly easy to overcome through innovations aimed to standardize and optimize IoT interoperability. At the top of this list is the LoRa platform. LoRa (short for “Long range”) is a low-power IoT communication network that allows for hundreds of physical IoT devices to communicate up to 10km in rural areas. The LoRa Alliance® has enabled a high level of plug and play and interoperability that makes LoRa gateways and compatible devices a popular platform for common, but perhaps less sophisticated, monitoring IIoT solutions.
When IIoT projects are successful, they create a perfect harmony of rich insights and visibility into your organization that can be invaluable at growing and improving business operations. However, it’s an endeavor that requires the right partner to help orchestrate the right solution that will hit every note. Our team brings years of wisdom from lessons learned to help you tackle the three common connectivity and integration challenges highlighted in this blog, along with the many other challenges IIoT projects often face.
Is your team thinking about solving a business challenge with an IoT solution but not sure where to start?
Bring us your napkins!
A great place to start is sketching out a rough idea of your concept or vision. Hallsten Innovations would be happy to review your napkin idea and provide feedback. Please send them our way or reach out for an introductory call by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.