Built to Last: Merging Legacy Equipment with IoT

Posted by Jeff Bates

 

As a Product Manager, I often discuss connectivity challenges with organizations and advise them on how to use Kepware solutions to gather machine data to uncover operational efficiencies. With the business value of the Internet of Things (IoT) established and recognized, I speak with more and more organizations that are evaluating how to implement IoT initiatives to improve factory performance and stay competitive in today’s global market.

One of the biggest hurdles these organizations must overcome is connectivity. Factory floors often house equipment that may have been installed ten, twenty or even thirty years ago. These industrial assets were built to last, but they lack the internet-based connectivity required to integrate with today’s modern machines. With promised benefits of increased visibility, uptime and profitability, asset integration is a challenge that must be resolved to build an IoT ecosystem.

Merging Legacy Equipment

So, where can you start? In my latest white paper, Merging Legacy Equipment with the Industrial Internet of Things: Three Approaches for Integrated Data, I evaluate the following strategies: rip-and-replace, best-of-breed third-party solutions (also known as retrofit or wrap-and-extend), and in-house solutions.

  • Rip-and-replace swaps legacy equipment with modern, IoT-enabled machinery.
  • Best-of-breed third-party solutions augment legacy machines with IoT-ready, out-of-the-box connectivity and extend the equipment’s capabilities.
  • In-house solutions are point solutions customized to the organization and created by internal personnel and technical resources.

Each approach has its pros and cons; for a couple examples, please see the excerpted tables below.

Rip-and-Replace

Pros Cons

Frontline of Technology: Replacing outdated assets ensures an organization has the most up-to-date technology and its full benefits: improved performance, lower power consumption and readiness for next-gen features, such as augmented reality.

Cost: This is the main limitation of a full rip-and replace. Most plant managers and maintenance teams would love to scrap all of their legacy technology and start anew, but the cost of new equipment alone is often enough to make this method unrealistic.

Equipment Reliability: Some especially outdated legacy equipment is no longer supported by vendors. This can lead to significant business risks in both the short- and long-term. New machinery means full support from vendors. Organizations that choose this methodology do not need to worry about assets that are only truly understood by the one close-to-retirement expert.

Time: Rip-and-replace involves a number of time sinks: sourcing (such as developing RFIs and RFPs and vendor negotiations), uninstalling current equipment, installing new equipment and ensuring appropriate vendor support during the installation phase, re-training employees and more. The time investment required by rip-and-replace is often prohibitive on its own.

 

Best-of-Breed Third-Party Solutions

Pros Cons

Speed of Install & ROI: Best-of-Breed solutions that provide out-of-the-box connectivity to legacy systems can be installed with no interruption to uptime. They are also built to accommodate a wide variety of legacy protocols, so will likely produce almost immediate results. While installing third-party sensors can take a little longer than connecting to the automation assets on the machine, new IoT-ready sensors are designed to be easy to install and use.

Bandwidth and Wireless Issues: These solutions are capable of collecting huge amounts of data— which requires bandwidth that can result in extra costs. Edge-based processing—which enables down-sampling or summary analytics before the information is sent to an IoT solution—are often included in these systems to help mitigate this issue.

 Availability of Expertise: System integrators are generally very familiar with these systems. A local system integrator can likely easily guide you through the process—or take it on entirely—at a reasonable cost.

System Maintenance: Depending on the number of third-party sensors needed to enable connectivity, this approach could create some system maintainability issues. A system integrator-guided implementation or purchasing all sensors from a single vendor who provides support, can help with maintenance.

 

In-House Solutions

Pros Cons

Customization: Often the driving factor of this decision, in-house solutions are infinitely customizable to an organization’s needs. IT and Operations teams work together to create usable solutions that access the specific data required to enable new IoT use cases. Using internal resources can also mean enhanced prioritization and installation, as in-house experts know the issues and can pinpoint immediate ways to address them.

Connectivity vs. Application: After a legacy asset is connected, that data needs somewhere to go. Collecting data is one challenge, but displaying it, analyzing it, or otherwise turning the data into actionable intelligence in a timely and useful manner is a whole other issue. Technicians that are able to solve all of these issues are generally hard to come by.

Small Scale: This approach often starts small. For example, a user could gather data from a legacy machine using a Raspberry Pi-type device and then display that data on a local HMI using a web service. This can be a great proof-of-concept project that is then extended to other machines, cells, workstations and lines. For organizations that need to be convinced of IoT ROI, this method can help mobilize internal support.

Maintenance & Expertise: As soon as any IoT solution’s value becomes fully apparent, departments and personnel will want to try new and innovative use cases. An in-house solution will always need to be enhanced and will require troubleshooting. The organization that asks an internal team to develop an in-house IoT solution and then move on to other tasks does so at their own peril. In-house experts are often good at maintaining one type of connectivity—but cannot easily scale beyond initial goals and often have limited knowledge of the organization-wide benefits of IoT.

 

Learn More

I encourage you to download the full white paper to explore each strategy’s pros and cons in greater detail, and to examine IoT-specific factors (like flexibility, scalability, cost-effectiveness and more). The paper also includes key questions you can ask to help identify the best method (or combination of methods) for your organization.

By integrating your legacy equipment with modern assets, you can implement IoT solutions and make smarter business decisions. Learn more so you can get started.

Download the White Paper