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Moving Your Industrial Control System To Wireless

Many industrial and manufacturing firms have started to integrate wireless networks for sensor data and controller systems to improve internal processes. From power plants, to oil refineries, to manufacturing facilities of all types, industrial control systems (ICS) are allowing more plants to operate at a higher efficiency.

There are several different types of wireless technologies that can be retrofitted to integrate with the plant mechanisms, including wireless local area network (WLAN) technologies and sensor-and-control-type technologies. Connecting sensors and controllers within a plant to the Internet of Things is known as industrial IoT, or IIoT.

In this article, we’re going to review IIoT, discuss the challenges an organization may face when integrating a wireless industrial control system, and look at benefits of industrial IoT. Let’s take a look.

What Is Industrial IoT (IIoT)?

The Internet of Things can be broadly organized into three categories: consumer, M2M, and industrial.

Consumer IoT embodies things, sensors, appliances, phones, HVAC systems, and other wirelessly-connected “things” in consumers’ lives. Consumer IoT devices are usually found in homes. Think of internet-connected alarm systems or Nest’s smart thermostat. This is a saturated area of the market, and “big players” in the field are getting involved with consumer IoT devices.

Machine-To-Machine (M2M) IoT generally refers to cellular-connected devices, but is also often used as a broader term, encompassing industrial applications.

Industrial IoT is one of the oldest markets for wireless technology. However, plants with operational technology (OT) stacks often have “air gapped” networks—meaning they aren’t connected to the internet. This is primarily because many OT systems were originally created before the internet existed, and have thus remained in the “stone age.” Security plays a part too, since it is hard to hack a system that cannot be accessed except through physical access.

In an oil refinery, an industrial IoT system could be something as simple as an automatic tank reading sensor. This prevents tanks from overflowing and lowers the cost of paying staff to manually read the tank levels (something that we’ll discuss later).

Some companies have begun to wise up and connect these processes to a closed loop industrial control system. Trying to drive automation into industrial processes is the main value point for industrial IoT.

Upsides & Challenges With Integrating Industrial IoT To Your Control System

It may come as a surprise to some, but some organizations have a bigger issue with their systems and processes than they do with selecting and implementing ICS technology. Why? Because there are a lot of technologies out there that can be implemented in plants to make them “smarter,” but it’s not always an easy process to implement this technology into the hardware.

Deciding which type of technology to integrate when moving their industrial control system to wireless is an important decision. The two main choices would be a WLAN (WiFi-type technology) or a more purpose-built sensor-focused wireless technology. Both offer some unique advantages and disadvantages.

WLAN Technology

The upside of Wi-Fi/WLAN is that it’s standardized to the point that everything is pretty interoperable. Most computer-based control systems are already retrofitted (or is easily outfitted) for Wi-Fi network connections. If you deploy a Wi-Fi network in a plant and buy a computer system to manage your industrial control system, you may have an IT problem (while you figure out how your computer and machinery are going to talk to each other). But you won’t have a big integration challenge with the technology, because the Wi-Fi interoperability and standardization issue has already been handled.

However, there are some drawbacks to Wi-Fi. If you have a data packet that needs to travel a long distance, then the limited range of Wi-Fi may be a deal breaker.

Sensor-Focused Wireless Technology

There are far fewer sensor- and controller-focused wireless technologies on the market for industrial systems than there are WLAN technologies, but there are still plenty of options out there. Sensor-level technology can be a challenge because of system integration—i.e., how will sensors interface to the radio (MODBUS, etc.) and how will the data stream be captured and routed back into existing data management software systems.

The challenge really becomes one of systems integration, where sensors, radios, controllers, and software all work together as part of a cohesive system. Widespread standardization at this level is not likely to occur in the next 10 years given the sheer number of competing protocols and technologies.

A Word Of Caution

It should be clear, based on the information above, that investing in IoT for industrial needs should be a business-driven decision. An organization should be focused solely on building a system that will help them achieve a particular business outcome, like cutting costs, improving particular efficiencies, etc.

We talked about how IIoT isn’t just challenging because of the technology, but even more so because of infrastructure and processes. That being said, we wouldn’t advise anyone to make a large investment in infrastructure early on. Why? Because standards and technology change all the time.

We recommend that, as a first step, organizations look at end-to-end (or mostly end-to-end) systems that are easier to integrate and have a true ROI associated with them. That way, they’ll learn a lot in the process about the broader needs of the organization, without investing in the wrong technology as a pure infrastructure investment.

This is, understandably, difficult for some organizations who want to move quickly. They may think that this is too much of a phased approach and want a more aggressive plan to creating a large system across the enterprise. Keep in mind that every firm (at some point) will invest in the wrong proprietary technology because of the constant change and growth in the space.

To save yourself from this kind of costly mistake, invest behind solutions and outcomes first, and these will help inform more strategic decisions about infrastructure for the future.

4 Things A Wireless Industrial Control System Will Help You Do

As previously mentioned, the main value point for industrial IoT is the ability to drive automation for industrial processes. Because improving efficiency and lowering costs can determine the success and profitability of an organization, organizations are always tweaking and examining these issues. To that end, it’s important to understand how those important outcomes are achieved. Here are some benefits of integrating IIoT in an organization:

1. Avoid excessive “manpower.”

Remember the oil refinery we referenced earlier? Let’s return to that example. This oil holding field and refinery is in rural Texas, and it requires that someone drive out to check the oil levels every hour of every day to monitor when the tanks need to be emptied. This is an important job, but it costs the refinery quite a bit to manage (i.e., for gas for the vehicle, the individual’s salary, etc.). So, management decides to add a wireless industrial control system that reads the levels wirelessly every hour. Now they have a more efficient system that saves manpower, which in turn improves their bottom line.

2. Save scrap.

Asset control and management can, at times, be more of an analytical or business operations problem, but it’s a problem that can often be solved by smart industrial control systems. The less time people spend looking for and buying parts they don’t need, the better. Let’s say at Link Labs, we waste a lot of money buying new screwdrivers every month because we can’t keep track of the ones we have (guilty!). There is a break-even point for everyone, of course, where tracking screwdrivers via a wireless control system isn’t worth the cost of constantly replacing them. For a smaller organization like Link Labs, we wouldn’t think of using a system like that to track screwdrivers, but for some larger-scale industrial plants, a smart “scrap saving” solution is financially justifiable.

3. Decrease cost of operations.

Many organizations waste money because they waste energy. Whether it’s lights being left on or machines running when they don’t need to be, unnecessary electricity use drives up the cost of large-scale operations greatly. Fortunately, sensor-level technology is perfect for these types of scenarios. Take a construction company, for example. If upper management realizes that all their heavy, human-operated machinery is being left on when it’s not in use, they could implement a sensor-driven solution that won’t allow the machine to be on unless someone is sitting in the seat.

The costs of fuel and maintenance for idling machines can rack up very quickly, especially in large organizations. If integrating IIoT can help you improve your processes across a large enterprise, it can drive savings to the bottom line.

4. Further optimize your “fully-optimized” processes.

IIoT can help you squeeze the last pennies out of processes that have faced the brunt of optimization over the decades. It may appear to the naked eye that a process cannot be optimized any more than it already is, but there are typically still efficiencies to be found. Only when you take it to machine-level sensing and control are you able to see what you can improve upon, because humans can only optimize processes to a certain (and limited) extent. Once you start to save time on the millisecond level—which is quite possible through sensor-technology industrial control systems—you can “squeeze the last drop” out of a large-scale optimization process.

Key Takeaways

If you walk away with only two things from this article, let them be these:

  1. Despite what you may read elsewhere, WLAN networks are not the only option you have for wireless industrial control systems. There are other technologies out there that can work very well for wireless sensor networks and wireless controllers (that have better range and performance than WLAN technologies do).
  2. If you decide to move forward with any given wireless solution, be sure you have a partner who understands the system-level complexities. The last thing you want is to purchase a overly complex (and insufficient) modbus and then be left without any assistance when the system doesn’t work as planned.

Industrial IoT Overview

Written by Brian Ray

Brian is the Founder and CTO of Link Labs. As the chief technical innovator and leader of the company, Brian has led the creation and deployment of a new type of ultra long-range, low-power wireless networking which is transforming the Internet of Things and M2M space.

Before starting Link Labs, Brian led a team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab that solved communications and geolocation problems for the national intelligence community. He was also the VP of Engineering at the network security company, Lookingglass, and served for eight years as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and received his Master’s Degree from Oxford University.

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