How to add IoT functions to legacy equipment

Is it really possible to bring the benefits of the Internet of Things to older systems? Yes, according to one edge/IoT company.

vintage voltmeter gauge
Thomas Kelley (CC0)

Powerful new Internet of Things (IoT) devices promise to revolutionize everything from farm equipment to satellites. But can those benefits also be added to the enormous installed base of existing, legacy, equipment, and infrastructure? After all, much of that stuff has been in place for decades, if not centuries, and still works just fine. Replacing it all would cost untold trillions, so no matter what the possible profits might be, it’s unlikely to fall out of service any time soon.

To find out what reasonably can be done to upgrade legacy gear to take advantage of the IoT, I traded emails with Keith Flynn, senior director of product management at AspenTech, which makes drop-in edge IoT solutions.

Older equipment, modern analytics

According to Flynn, the big benefit of retrofitting older equipment is to take advantage of modern analytical tools in the same way they do with new equipment. That saves money by using the same maintenance methodologies as their new equipment. Ironically, Flynn points out, modern maintenance procedures can be even more critical when dealing with aging equipment that may be at higher risk for failures and unplanned downtime. And it’s a lot cheaper than the capital expenses required to rip and replace existing control systems. 

Adding IoT sensors can “deliver new information and new context on the equipment,” Flynn says, which opens the door for more efficient operations by reducing energy usage yield or production, and so on.

A $370 billion IoT upgrade market?

Legacy IoT upgrades typically happen after identifying a specific business outcome or requirement: improving efficiency, reducing energy consumption, etc. 

I asked Flynn how big the IoT upgrade market might be, and he cited estimates of about 22 percent of a $1.7 trillion total IoT market. And he claimed upgrading legacy systems can save more than 70 percent compared to brand-new IoT installations, even more when adding multiple legacy systems to a single IoT gateway device. The biggest savings? Using wireless sensors drastically reduces the amount of necessary wiring for both the network and individual sensors.

Putting the edge at the center

According to Flynn, edge computing plays a critical role in this process, especially in situations that have limited bandwidth or network latency issues.

Here’s how it works, Flynn says:

“Once we establish the sensors, we then require selection of the edge service to read the values from the sensors and can communicate their values back to a database. We also have to establish what networking we have access to: wired LAN, Wi-Fi, cellular, satellite, etc. … For example, we would have to decide if the data is to go into a plant MES (manufacturing execution system), corporate database, or cloud storage.”

Using edge computing, he adds, lets AspenTech combine or condition signals to help alleviate any network issues.

Challenges of adding IoT to older systems

The hardest part of bringing the IoT to older systems seems to be dealing with the unique, one-off characteristics of each legacy situation — often without accurate documentation.

“Older equipment sometimes requires a necessary, unique design step in each individual case,” Flynn says.

The key, he adds, is to avoid disrupting the existing control scheme and operations of the legacy system.

“We have to be careful not to create new issues. If the legacy system uses an older communication protocol, then we have to ensure not to overload any bandwidth or processor,” he says.

If that’s not possible, using new IoT sensors requires selecting the right new IoT sensors and instrumentation to solve a particular problem. That, in turn, requires a higher level of operational technology expertise.

But that’s only part one, Flynn says. You still have to network into an existing IT infrastructure, often using a combination of edge devices and sensors. New Wi-Fi connections may be needed.

Given the low prices of modern IoT devices and sensors, the labor for adding sensors to existing equipment could be the biggest cost in this kind of situation. For example, Flynn calculates that “installation labor of the sensors could be more than the hardware itself.”

Adding sensors is cheaper, and still future proof

Still, this approach remains far simpler than a full rip and replace. Sensors added to a legacy system stay external to existing controls to avoid disrupting current operations. Sensors are typically added just to read values, Flynn explains, not to alter the controls (inputs). And he notes that “modern IoT, wireless, battery-operated sensors allow us to do this with minimal requirements for wiring and power.”

Just as important, perhaps, adding IoT sensing helps prepare the system for future requirements.

“In most cases,” Flynn says, “these systems are easily scalable. That means additional sensors or other pieces of legacy equipment can be added later.”

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