The Fourth Industrial Revolution is well underway, with automation, AI, and machine learning becoming a reality.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, has created boundless opportunities to make improvements to existing processes. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) in particular promises to revolutionise manufacturing and engineering businesses.

The IIoT is a technology solution. It relies on sensors and smart devices to collect and collate data from equipment relating to its performance and operation. It simply wouldn’t exist without the technology platform that enables it.

But success in the use of the IIoT demands more than just technology. While it is important to understand the potential benefits of IIoT, a mature strategy for its adoption acknowledges the presence of some of the wider organisational challenges to its adoption.

Clear benefits
The IIoT is all about the flow of data. Now, collecting and analysing business data isn’t an especially new idea. But when there are very large datasets involved, it is necessary to be able to handle high volumes of data, and more particularly to be able to analyse that data effectively. Assuming that established data analytics processes will automatically be able to cope with IIoT data could be shortsighted.

In the maintenance sector, the IIoT’s value can be seen in the way it can help avoid unwanted downtime. If a machine is getting too hot, or generating excessive vibration, readings taken from that machine can be spotted immediately and action can be taken. It might be something as simple as a part needing to be cleaned or required adjustments to the lubrication. The sooner it is dealt with the less likely a problematic failure will occur.

“When it comes to maintenance, repair and operations (MRO), so much of what takes place today would have been familiar to anyone working in the field 10 or 20 years ago,” says Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria. “Something stops working, an engineer is summoned to fix it, they identify the problem, source the relevant parts and get everything back on track.”

There’s little doubt that smart machines and sensors are better than people at capturing data like that in real-time. They can also transmit it in real-time too, providing accuracy, reliability, and consistency of information. Maintenance can become a proactive, preventative measure rather than a break-fix initiative.

A well-run, properly executed predictive maintenance programme can decrease breakdowns by 70%-75%, increase uptime by between 35% and 45%, and help deliver a 10-fold increase in ROI.

IIoT also offers opportunities for increased automation. Resources can be better planned and allocated, with routine, mundane operations taken on by robots, leaving people time to do more valuable tasks. Twinned with a pro-active maintenance strategy based on condition monitoring, this can lead to increased productivity and efficiency as well as reductions in downtime.

"So much of what takes place today would have been familiar to anyone working in the field 10 or 20 years ago"Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria

Cultural challenges
In the Indirect Procurement Report 2020: The Evolution of MRO – RS Components’ white paper produced in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) – just 5% of UK businesses said they had an IIoT strategy in place.

“One of the biggest barriers to a successful implementation of the IIoT can be trying to balance the competing needs of organisation technology (OT) and information technology (IT) within a business,” Richard Jeffers explains. “Everyone concerned with engineering and manufacturing for a large business may be completely convinced of the needs to embrace the IIoT, but that still isn’t always enough.”

They may have very compelling arguments to put forward about the pressure to keep up with customer expectations and the dangers of being left behind by leaner, more efficient competitors. That still might not be enough, either.

The IT professionals within the business are charged with safeguarding the corporate network and all the things connected to it – everything from employee data to customer data, from an online sales front-end to back-end functions like accounting and finance. Quite reasonably, they may view the connection of thousands of smart sensors to their systems as the presence of thousands of potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Vetoing the adoption of the IIoT might not make a lot of operational sense, but it certainly avoids a problem no one wants.

Jeffers continues: “Bridging that gap so that any potential security issues are addressed without shutting an organisation off from the advantages of the IIoT is vitally important, therefore. It may call for a single set of KPIs and objectives for OT and IT teams, so that collaborating together on solutions becomes the norm.”

Effective collaboration
Many of the theories around the IIoT and Industry 4.0 have been discussed at length in research circles for decades, says maintenance engineering academic, Dr Moray Kidd.

“For many of us, including the generation before me, we've been looking at these techniques for quite some time. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that not much of it is new in an academic context; some of these principles were proposed over 40 years ago.”

What was missing until recently, however, was the enabling technology. Now that the IIoT and Industry 4.0 are a reality, some of the old, familiar job demarcations we are used to seeing must be re-examined.

“I see some really exciting times ahead as we witness the formation of multidiscipline teams,” Dr Kidd says. “Historically, there are divisions between disciplines like mechanical engineering, maintenance engineering or research on one side and people working in computer science on the development of machine learning algorithms on the other.”

Multidisciplinary teams can tackle a problem from many perspectives simultaneously to make smart decisions around the future of maintenance engineering, for example.

Dr Kidd continues: “A lot of the things we've discussed over the years in academia are now not far away from commercial application. Questions like ‘why don't we have autonomous systems, self-healing systems?’ aren’t just being talked about – we’re seeing things come to fruition.”

"I see some really exciting times ahead as we witness the formation of multidiscipline teams"Dr Moray Kidd, maintenance engineering academic

As exciting as that possibility is, it is a long way from the daily reality of many manufacturing businesses. Most industrial sites are made up of a combination of the old and the new. Simply scrapping everything over a certain age and investing in new machines is beyond the means of most businesses.

A successful IIoT strategy should blend both old and new. It must accept the reality of the situation your organisation is in – if necessary, move slowly, identify solutions to the barriers you are likely to encounter. Be prepared to adopt a fail-fast methodology within your overall IIoT strategy and see everything you do as a learning process.

Beyond that, an organisation-wide people-centred approach is also needed. Cultural change is needed from top to bottom to make the adoption of new models such as the IIoT work. As roles change, people may experience a certain amount of anxiety, too. Iterative, step changes are required to invest in the IIoT – only then is it likely longer-term operational performance improvements will be achieved.

To find out how RS Maintenance Solutions can help your business make the most of the IIoT, or to learn more about our other services, please visit our website here.