Connecting Workers: Field Apps and Closing the Digital Control Loop on IIoT Smart Assets

Introduction

It’s no secret that the IIoT is taking the industrial world by storm.

IIoT edge devices measure real-time data readings on industrial assets out in the field, such as temperature, air quality, gas leaks, pressure and humidity — and IIoT software platforms make this data available for analysis — allowing personnel to draw conclusions about the state of the asset.

The result is “smart assets” — allowing a company to better schedule preventative maintenance, prolong the life of its assets, and ultimately save costs.

As you can see, the true value of the IIoT is in using data and analytics to decide when actions need to be performed. By connecting IIoT systems to the information tools used by technicians who execute actions in the field, companies can create a closed digital control loop.

The Smart Asset Control Loop

Replacing manual business processes (that rely spreadsheets, clipboard & paper, and such) with digital apps out in the field has become common practice within the industrial space. When field employees need to collect data, receive work orders or follow prescribed workflows, this is increasingly taking place in apps running on mobile devices instead of paper forms. These apps are used for a large variety of use cases, and are an important aspect of a digital strategy.

However, few field apps used by industrial companies today are actually connected to IIoT systems. There is a broken link between the field apps and the IIoT insights.

The graphic below from Gartner shows what a smart asset control loop ought to look like — consisting of four stages:

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  1. Sense: The first stage is the IIoT edge device sensing an issue or collecting relevant data.
  2. Communicate: This data is then communicated from the field to the IIoT system (typically in the cloud).
  3. Analyze: Here the data is analyzed, and conclusions are drawn on actions that need to be performed.
  4. Act: In the field, a technician carries out the required actions on the asset.
  5. Sense (repeat): Once the action has been taken to rectify a maintenance issue, the IIoT sensor again collects data about the asset in its renewed state — so the control loop is completed.

Today, industrial companies that have implemented IIoT systems typically have a manual step to go from “Analyze” to “Act” — typically, they manually need to provide information and work instructions to the technician, and the technician often uses a manual process to record work performed on the asset — disconnected from the IIoT system.

Using Field Apps to Close the Control Loop

When companies integrate their field apps with their IIoT system, technicians get access to a variety of valuable data and functions:

  1. They have real-time IIoT data in their hands to see how the asset is performing.
  2. They can receive immediate alerts of anomalies on the asset.
  3. Alerts can be converted into actions / work instructions required to rectify the anomaly, within the context of the IIoT data.
  4. Technicians can conduct maintenance or adjust settings on the asset based on the real-time digital stream of data, and verify from subsequent data received from the IIoT sensors that the anomaly has been rectified.

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Clearly, through actionable data, IIoT-integrated field apps can play a very important role in closing the digital control loop on smart assets. There no longer has to be a manual step and a break in digital continuity between the “Analyze” and “Act” parts of the control loop.

JourneyApps has unique capabilities in its low-code platform for industrial companies to integrate IIoT systems with field apps — such as the ability to ingest IIoT data through the MQTT protocol in real-time within apps.

The Effect on Maintenance

A process that is possibly most impacted by field apps that close the control loop on IIoT smart assets is that of maintenance. IIoT systems that are integrated with field apps allow companies to move towards predictive maintenance, as opposed to time-based preventive maintenance, or reactive maintenance.

Predictive maintenance uses techniques and systems such the IIoT and connected field apps to track the performance of equipment during normal operation to detect possible defects, and fix them before they result in failure. This means cost savings by prolonging the life of the assets and reducing the amount of unnecessary preventive maintenance.

Implementing predictive maintenance also means that field technicians do not spend unnecessary time working on assets. Technicians in the industrial sectors are typically working in hazardous conditions. Reducing on-site time through predictive maintenance contributes to the overall safety of the workforce.

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What Does the Future Hold?

Integrating the IIoT with field apps to close the digital control loop is just the beginning.

In their presentation “The Future of Industrial Assets in and Beyond Manufacturing” delivered at their IT Symposium, Gartner talks about six aspects that will impact the future of industrial assets. These aspects are:

  1. New Attributes (Physical and Digital) Will Define Equipment: Assets in the future will be defined by intelligent and flexible utilization. Data will be integrated through OT and IoT while aspects such as AI and machine learning will play a big role.
  2. Data and Intelligence Will Be Collected In New Ways: Data will be collected by newer technology, and data will increase in value.
  3. The Complexity of Change Will Need New Tools: As the data that is collected from assets increases in complexity, the systems used to manage these data and assets must evolve. Some of these systems include asset performance management (APM), augmented reality / virtual reality (AR/VR), and asset lifecycle management.
  4. Parts Will Move Differently in the MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Operational) Supply Chain: The supply chain will become evermore autonomous while some spares will even be created on-site with technology such as 3-D printing.
  5. Ecosystems in Your Own Company — a Linked Chain of Equipment: Assets will become increasingly connected within a company (across departments or even across companies), creating an ecosystem of assets.
  6. How We Value Asset-Centric Businesses Will Change: Future assets will be designed with optimization in mind (cost reduction, etc.), and drive business model transformation (for example, opening up new revenue streams).

In Conclusion

As the implementation of IIoT systems within industrial companies becomes more prevalent, field apps allow companies to realize the IIoT’s full potential. Closing the control loop on smart assets has multiple benefits, including reduced costs, prolonged asset lifetime and increased safety. The technology in this area is continuously evolving, and the future is very bright.


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