Integrating Legacy Data into IoT Initiatives: Three Methodologies
Today’s factory floor is a melting pot of equipment, with the newest machines relying on technology that didn’t even exist when the oldest machines were built. Integrating data from different machine generations can be a huge challenge, but is vital when optimizing the plant floor and creating an effective Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem.
Legacy equipment contains valuable data, but most legacy tools were not built for seamless data access. In fact, some legacy equipment was specifically structured to prevent direct integration for security reasons.
In 2016, an IDG Research Survey found that 64 percent of senior IT manufacturing executives said that integrating data from disparate sources in order to extract business value from that data is the single biggest challenge of the IoT. Data integration has been a challenge for IT and Operations teams for years, but IoT makes the need for integration more urgent—and more challenging.
For more than 20 years, Kepware has been helping customers access their industrial data in order to extract meaning and value from that data. In that time, we have seen the benefits and drawbacks of different approaches to incorporating legacy equipment into IoT initiatives. These are the three main approaches—and their key benefits and potential trade-offs—that manufacturers have traditionally taken (and will continue to take) when integrating legacy tools with their IoT initiatives.
Approach 1: Rip-and-Replace
A “rip-and-replace” approach involves fully scrapping legacy equipment and replacing it with modern, IoT-enabled machinery. It is often attractive in theory (who wouldn’t want the best and most efficient equipment across the plant floor?), but in practice can be hampered by time sinks and budget restrictions. Sourcing activities (such as developing RFPs and vendor negotiations), uninstalling current equipment, installing new equipment, ensuring appropriate vendor support during the installation phase and re-training employees are just a few of the challenges inherent in this approach. Combined with the cost of new equipment, rip-and-replace is often unrealistic for most organizations. However, replacing outdated assets ensures an organization can reap the benefits of the most up-to-date technology, including improved performance, lower power consumption and readiness for next-gen features, such as augmented reality (AR).
A large-scale rip-and-replace also has ramifications beyond the plant floor. Investing in this option may require an organization to forgo other lucrative investments. On the other hand, the benefits of enterprise-wide visibility into operational KPIs may be enough to make it worthwhile. So if the immediate cost and time concerns can be overcome, this approach can be lucrative over the long-term as it creates an efficient, future-focused factory.
Approach 2: 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. A Best-of-Breed approach enables communication to the legacy protocols used by the equipment (or by the equipment’s components), such as PLCs, control applications and embedded sensors. It can also involve adding sensors that directly measure KPIs and make this data accessible to the IoT. 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 of a best-of-breed third-party solution on the enterprise as a whole depends on how the data is used. 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, and includes the added benefit of being extremely customizable to different needs.
One drawback to this approach is that it often requires factories to upgrade their networks. Best-of-breed third-party solutions are capable of collecting huge amounts of data, and the bandwidth necessary to transmit that data can result in extra costs. Edge-based processing—which enables down-sampling or summary analytics before the information is sent to an IoT solution—can help mitigate this issue. A best-of-breed approach can be beneficial for organizations that need to integrate legacy equipment quickly and efficiently.
Approach 3: In-House Solutions
In-house solutions are typically created by internal personnel using internal technical resources, and are fully supported in-house. An in-house approach ensures that an organization’s specific, unique goals are met. And because the organization has direct control over its resources, technicians are more likely to be readily available to make changes. However, there may be more demands on the in-house IoT-support team than they can meet in a timely manner. They will be responsible for bug fixes, troubleshooting, training, product improvements and maintenance. This might not seem like much at first, but can add up over the lifespan of an IoT solution.
In addition, 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 in a timely and useful manner is a whole other issue. Technicians that are experts in both connectivity and IoT application development are hard to come by. And if your lead technician were to leave the company, could you find a suitable replacement?
What Approach Works Best for You?
Each of these approaches can serve to optimize data access for an organization. But, the best approach will almost certainly involve working with a myriad of IoT solutions and vendors, bringing some internal resources to bear and replacing some equipment. For example, instead of full rip-and-replace, you might replace just some outdated equipment while keeping other legacy equipment and incorporating plug-and-play sensors—taking the best of different approaches to fit your business needs. Striking the right balance will involve considering the specific goals of your organization and making strategic trade-offs, with a focus on staying competitive and efficient into the future.