We talked to engineers whose views on a low-cost, sensor-bridge-cloud solution for gaining better insight and control over operations underscore the tradeoffs in innovation vs. standardization.
Ask anyone who has successfully completed an IIoT project for their advice to those looking to get started, and the response is likely to be “Don’t waste time building a business case, ‘Just do it.’”
Which sounds good in theory, but up until now there hasn’t been a lot of easy hardware options for local managers looking to start-small-go-big or develop a quick proof-of-concept that will bolster their IIoT business case.
Enter Swift Sensors, a company that came out of stealth mode late last year with a sensor-bridge-cloud solution targeted at protecting and monitoring equipment and processes in a wide range of applications, including industrial. (Yanzi offers a similar sensors-gateway-cloud platform solution for smart building applications.)
According to the company, the system can be fully deployed in minutes (no programming required) at a fraction of the cost of traditional solutions. Best of all: no engineering degree required.
Keep it Simple, Stupid
“I like the simplicity of it—it seems like a good idea,” said Mark Lochmann, a consultant who has spent 40 years of his career in the oil and gas industry focusing on information technology solutions. “If it were my company and I wanted better insight and control over operations, I would roll it out as a pilot as soon as possible.”
But notwithstanding the potential, Lochmann said that based on his experience in oil and gas, a technology solution like this might well be killed off before it even gets off the ground.
“Most operations staff are not comfortable being their own IT administrator—no matter how easy-to-use the technology is—and so will naturally involve IT,” he explained. “But IT tends to swoop in and quickly squash any efforts to bring any new technology in by trying to take control.
“The business benefit would be buried in an avalanche of IT BS. IT-controlled projects typically take years to complete and then often do not really meet business needs."
For its part, IT staff sees control as necessary to maintain common standards and avoid “one-off” projects that can result in unnecessary expenditures in development or interoperability of equipment and solutions. When it comes to IIoT, many strive for a common horizontal platform that offers open connectivity, better security, and economies of scale—and also hopefully supports flexibility.
And therein lies the challenge.
One engineer (who wished to remain off the record) who has successfully implemented several IIoT projects told us that while he liked the approach of simplifying the deployment of sensors to industrial equipment, his company wants standards-based implementation from the bottom to the top.
“Prices [for the Swift Sensors solution] seem good,” he said. ‘I think it’ll be very appealing for small to mid-size businesses that don’t have a lot of security concerns or sophisticated IT infrastructure in place already. But I think large enterprises will have issues.”
As a simple example, he pointed to the fact that the sensors in the Swift solution are battery-powered. ”I dislike the idea of having to implement a new support business of swapping out batteries across thousands of devices all over the place,” he explained. “My ideal state for of sensors like these this would be to have something like a USB port on the side that I could grab 5V from the equipment somewhere and power the sensor forever.’’
Kelly Jones, CTO of Swift Sensors, pointed out that power tradeoffs are indeed the most difficult decision in a wireless sensor system. Explaining that his company opted to use a low-power electronics that can be battery powered so the sensors could literally be placed anywhere, regardless of the location of power, he said that the power cable option could be added to future designs if customers felt it was an important feature.
But Will it Go Mainstream?
Lochmann sees the power in technology solutions like Swift Sensors’ in the ability to install them quickly and either maintain them as a locally sponsored fix or adopt it as a permanent part of the company’s solution.
But he doesn’t see that happening until local managers are empowered to get the job done. “Technology like this will go mainstream when centralized control is relaxed enough for local managers to deploy solutions to solve local problems and manage their own businesses, said Lochmann.
It’s a powerful, yet scary approach for companies, he noted, but a necessary one that will require the highest-level support to be routinely deployed.