Built to Last: Merging Legacy Equipment With IoT

Today’s factory floor needs to span generations, with legacy equipment installed in 1980 flawlessly integrating with tools built to last through 2080. Future-forward industrial assets are usually readily accessible to the industrial Internet of Things (IoT)—a new technology paradigm that is helping manufacturers improve competitiveness, increase profitability and reduce downtime.

But to capture these benefits, factories need an IoT ecosystem that integrates legacy assets—some of which were built before the Internet was even invented—with modern assets that rely on internet-based connectivity.

What Is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)?

The IoT is a technology revolution that reaches far beyond the world of manufacturing. At its most basic definition, IoT combines the virtual world of data with the physical world of “things.” “Things” are defined by the specific IoT context—they can be buildings, phones, light switches, clothes and innumerable other physical objects. The physical object performs a function that creates data and that data is uploaded to the Internet, where it can be accessed, manipulated and analyzed by users or other machines.

In the Industrial Automation realm, “things” are devices, machines, software applications and other assets that powers manufacturing. The industrial IoT connects the plant floor to the enterprise—enhancing visualization, data analysis and holistic insights so that operators can optimize critical processes and performance. A key component of the industrial IoT is “data synergy,” which is the integration of data from many sources to create value.

For example, an enterprise that relies on timely finished goods delivery could integrate weather forecast data with supply chain data in order to proactively mitigate any weather issues that could impact delivery schedules. Data synergy is the reason it is so valuable to connect legacy machines—and modern equipment—into IoT solutions for a complete, integrated view of machines across the factory floor as part of a “smart factory.”

There’s one universal challenge to creating this interconnected environment: connecting legacy machines with modern tools. Connecting legacy machines is challenging, but not impossible. There are several strategies an organization can adopt—each with their own unique benefits and drawbacks. Consider these three different methodologies as you evaluate how to create an IoT solution that will optimize your legacy data.

Option One: Rip-and-Replace

Rip-and-replace involves fully scrapping legacy equipment and replacing it with modern, IoT-enabled machinery. The benefits of a Rip-and-replace approach involve:

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.

Equipment Reliability:

Some outdated legacy equipment is no longer supported by vendors, leading 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.

Up-to-Date Standards:

Manufacturing assets are built to last, but they often require extensive maintenance. Aging, unreliable hardware can put a major strain on maintenance resources and as IoT connectivity comes into play, this strain can extend to IT departments. New equipment won’t have this issue—similarly, safety features of new equipment are likely to be up to modern standards.

However, there are some cons to rip-and-replace, including:

  • 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.
  • Time: Rip-and-replace involves 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.

IoT-Specific Considerations of a Rip-and-replace Technology Approach

  1. Connectivity: The most modern equipment will have the most modern connectivity available— making it likely the most interoperability-friendly and accessible IoT enablement solution.
  2. Flexibility: Depending on the equipment, users may have the ability to discuss current needs with vendors and get custom machinery to meet those exact needs—creating ultimate flexibility, at least in the short-term. Technology and business requirements have evolved far beyond what was conceived when legacy systems were installed.
  3. Scalability: New machines as a part of an IoT solution are often immediately scalable—a new machine simply requires a new connection to the IoT platform or application. However, connecting these machines to multiple systems (such as SCADA, MES, Historian and Cloud-based applications), can be cumbersome, depending on whether or not a connectivity platform is also in place.
  4. Cost-Effectiveness: Legacy assets often force manufacturers to rely heavily on in-house expertise that was built over time—new assets mitigate this risk. In addition, aging hardware may become unreliable or require significant maintenance. If an organization has not kept up-to-date with firmware upgrades, it can miss out on valuable new features. New equipment is pricey, but may be cost-effective in the long-term.
  5. Overall Benefits to the Enterprise: A large-scale rip-and-replace effort has ramifications beyond the plant floor. Investing in this option may require an organization to forgo other lucrative investments. However, the benefits of enterprise-wide visibility into operations KPIs may be enough to make it worth-while.

Option Two: Best-of-Breed Third-Party Solution

Also referred to as a “retrofit” or “wrap-and-extend” solution, this method involves using third-party, IoT-ready connectivity solutions—such as OPC servers, IoT platforms, IoT Gateways and sensors—that extend the capabilities of legacy equipment.

The benefits of this approach include:

  • Speed of Install & ROI: Best-of-Breed solutions that provide out-of-the-box connectivity to legacy systems can be installed with no downtime. They are built to accommodate a variety of legacy protocols, so will likely produce almost immediate results. New IoT-ready sensors are designed to be easy to install and use.
  • 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.
  • Customization: Best-of-Breed makes IoT implementation very customizable. A new machine might have hundreds of sensors—only a few of which are valuable for a given enterprise. By adding third-party sensors to a legacy machine, users can target only the information they truly need. Similarly, connectivity solutions and IoT Gateways are generally modular, so organizations only pay for the functionality they need.

However, they also include potential downsides to third-party IIoT solutions, such as:

  • 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—help mitigate this issue.
  • 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.

IoT-Specific Considerations for Best-in-Breed Connectivity Solutions

Connectivity: These solutions are designed to provide seamless data communication across disparate software applications, machines, devices and protocols. In addition, a Best-of-Breed approach often reaches beyond just connectivity and includes aggregation of data through a single application, which helps provide the vital data synergy aspect of IoT enablement.

Flexibility: Best-of-breed solutions offer pluggable functionality that serves a wide variety of industries and use cases. There are more and more IoT sensors on the market that specifically address different industries and KPIs.  

Scalability: The Best-of-breed approach gives users a single access point to their data. If a new machine comes online, or a new application is installed, only a single connection needs to be made—not a complex matrix of connections.

Cost-Effectiveness: These solutions were designed to help extend legacy machine lifespan—so even the most outdated tools continue to provide new value and new data. The cost of the solution itself is generally flexible—price points can change as components are added or removed.

Overall Benefits to the Enterprise: Best-of-breed solutions are IoT-ready and reach beyond the plant floor to provide visibility into operational data for the entire enterprise. The impact on the enterprise as a whole depends on how the data is used, but by gathering integrated data from both legacy and modern machines, this approach has the potential to enhance decision-making at all levels of an organization.

Option Three: In-House Solutions

A solution created by internal personnel and technical resources. In-house projects are supported internally and created with the organization’s specific goals in mind.

The benefits of an in-house solution include:

  • 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.
  • Small Scale: This approach often starts small with proof-of-concept projects that are 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.
  • Speed of Install & ROI: An in-house solution typically first requires marshalling resources and getting those resources trained on the technology. Operations can generally continue while this background research is done, so organizations will not experience the same downtime as in a rip-and-replace scenario— but getting developers up to speed on new protocols and technology can take months.

However, in-house solutions face downsides such as:

  • 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. Talent can be hard to find and expensive.
  • 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 require troubleshooting. 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.

IoT-Specific Considerations for In-House Solutions

Connectivity: In-house approaches vary widely— and so does the expertise in connectivity. An expert might know a lot about one protocol or sensor type, but may not have the requisite expertise for other connectivity needs.

Flexibility: These projects are infinitely flexible, constrained only by time and resources.

Scalability: An in-house connectivity solution applied to many of the same machine types doesn’t necessarily serve as a connectivity platform for additional devices and applications—unless it is explicitly architected that way. Introducing new protocols in the future means the in-house solution may require more development work.

Cost-Effectiveness: Using an in-house method will ensure that external costs are limited. However, internal costs can be hard to track and it is often difficult to compare the total cost of an in-house solution. While third-party vendors can keep pricing low by spreading their costs across multiple customers, organizations that invest in building their own solutions bear all the development costs alone.

Overall Benefits to the Enterprise: Using an in-house approach ensures that an organization’s specific goals are met, and using internal resources ensures that technicians are possibly more readily available to make changes. However, there may be more demands on the in-house IoT-building team than they can meet long-term, as they will be responsible for bug fixes, troubleshooting, training, product improvements and maintenance.

Next Steps for Integrating Legacy Data with IoT

Any manufacturer who hopes to stay competitive in today’s market needs the data synergy made possible by an IoT-connected factory. By keeping with the status quo of legacy machines, some manufacturers will be left behind as others leverage IoT to increase productivity, uptime and efficiency.

All the strategies outlined above will help extend your legacy equipment’s usefulness and optimize its data through an IoT-driven integration. But the best approach starts with your specific goals and determining the right trade-offs for your organization.

Learn more today by speaking with an industrial connectivity expert.

Tags: Connected Devices Industrial Connectivity Industrial Internet of Things Thingworx Kepware Increase Manufacturing Productivity Industry 4.0 IT/OT Convergence