Visit any manufacturing trade show or check out any engineering blog and you won’t be able to miss those three little words seemingly on everyone’s mind and on the tip of everyone’s tongue lately: Internet of Things. The potential application of IoT technology appears limitless, and for compressed air systems, the energy-saving impact could truly be game-changing. Here’s a look at how the Internet of Things will affect compressed air systems, and of equal importance, how end users should start preparing today for this new technology revolution.
The concept behind the IoT – connecting critical equipment with data communications and transmitting the data via the Internet – certainly is not new. As consumers, we’ve been enjoying the modern conveniences of the IoT for several years – scanning a bar code on an empty medicine bottle to refill a prescription at the pharmacy, for example, or receiving a notice that our online order has been delivered. And with tablet and smartphone use on the rise and websites switching to responsive design faster than you can say “mobile-friendly,” the IoT is becoming a part of our daily lives.
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), logically, builds on the connectivity of the IoT and applies it to machines and equipment in the manufacturing world. The IIoT blurs the lines of individuality when it comes to a particular piece of equipment. Instead, integrated connectivity makes it possible to view the pieces as a single system. Data are collected from numerous points in the system and analyzed to give a more precise understanding of system operation and how deviations from key threshold values affect the system’s overall efficiency and provide a means for more precise process control.
Today, organizations such as the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) are working to bolster interconnectedness so data can be collected, analyzed, and leveraged to reduce waste and ultimately improve operational effectiveness and profitability.
The end goal is the realization of the Smart Factory – where the IIoT is fully connected and integrated with the element of human analytics. The IIoT is merely the data stream; it still requires human intervention to perform actual repair work or maintenance and to make decisions. With the IIoT, automation replaces key parts of plant processes, freeing up plant personnel to analyze and respond to the data stream. In the Smart Factory, cyber-physical and human systems work together seamlessly to better and more efficiently integrate technology with a person’s daily work so he or she can more effectively manage plant assets.
Adding compressed air systems within the context of the Smart Factory promises major efficiency gains because energy for making compressed air often is one of the highest costs a plant has. Many plant executives profess concern about controlling costs, but they overlook compressors until there is a problem with a unit and their compressed air supply is disrupted, causing production to come to a standstill. The Smart Factory has the potential to amplify the “set it and forget it” mentality even more given that increased monitoring would enable predictive maintenance and, as a result, prevent disruptions to the compressed air supply.
With the compressed air system gathering, compiling, and analyzing system data on a local level, energy efficiency is continually tracked and monitored. Smart system controls ensure that energy-efficient selections are always made to meet whatever the production demand may be. Temperature, pressure, vibration, and other sensors are installed throughout the system, continually measuring key parameters and uploading this data to a cloud-based network where a maintenance provider monitors it closely. A spike in a motor temperature winding, for example, would raise a flag; further data would be reviewed for prediagnostics; and parts would be pulled from inventory and dispatched with a service technician. The repair would take place before an actual problem occurred, before anyone noticed, without disrupting production. In concept, the Smart Factory will cause the extinction of downtime.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the IoT and dream of the day when we won’t have to worry about equipment failure. But when it comes to the future of interconnected manufacturing, the big issue that few people are talking about is preparation. This isn’t going to happen overnight. Making a Smart Factory concept a reality tomorrow necessitates making fundamental changes to your system today – changes in equipment and in mindset.