Bringing IoT to old-school industries without disruption is challenging

Most industries that are moving to modern IoT are faced with integrating the new technology with their older gear, making for a complex transition, but the technical side of the process is getting simpler by the day.

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In the enterprise half of the IoT world, heavy industries like energy, manufacturing, and automotive are the biggest success stories for the new technology, but the prospect of integrating their existing computerized-orchestration and management technology with modern industrial IOT gear can be daunting.

The vast majority of IIoT deployments are attempts to layer modern sensors, edge gateways, and communications modules over the top of existing frameworks like SCADA, which means updating legacy sensors and other hardware where possible.

The good news is that it’s not as big a deal as might be expected from a technical standpoint. There are solutions out there for retrofitting older gear while it’s still operating. New sensor kits or communications modules can sometimes be added to industrial machinery via old RS-232 serial ports, but often that’s not enough. Ethernet connectivity at a minimum is usually what’s required to start metering and then gathering data in meaningful volumes. Hence the need for broader upgrade programs.

Gas pipeline IIoT transition relies on edge networking

Bill Johnson is a vice president and chief transformation officer with DCP Midstream, an energy company mostly devoted to operating natural gas pipelines. It’s got 57,000 miles of pipeline and 61 plants spread across the southern U.S. He said that DCP, like many other companies, is facing the challenge of installing new IIoT equipment without having to take pumps valves and other machinery off-line while they do it. That is such a major concern that the ability to do so has become a selling point for him.

Whether the IIoT add-ons are flow sensors, pressure monitors or digital thermometers, Johnson said that anything that can simply be strapped, bolted or glued onto the outside of the machinery it’s supposed to be monitoring is more attractive than something that has to be mounted within the equipment itself.

For DCP, the value of IIoT is in getting data from its systems in the field into a centralized repository for analysis. Instrumenting those systems and getting them all to communicate with the analysis layer is enough of a challenge, but DCP also has to cope with the issue of many of its facilities being located in remote areas.

“Most of the world believes there’s pervasive 4G/LTE available everywhere, and that’s absolutely not true where we operate,” noted Johnson. “It’s very hard to convince AT&T or Verizon to give you signal at some of these locations, because they don’t have consumer users [out there.]”

So other methods have to be used. One is the use of old-school, point-to-point radio links between sites, as well as satellite communications, but these are expensive and can be unreliable. That prompted a move toward edge computing – installing local devices to receive and process information from sensors, instead of relying on long-range data links back to a data center, or, in DCP’s case,

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