If you work with or in a manufacturing facility, you are most likely familiar with the PLC, a type of rugged, specialized computer used for production line automation and control. Originally developed for the automotive industry, PLCs are now used in pretty much all manufacturing facilities, in all types of industries, all over the world. The global market for PLCs is $16 billion a year, growing annually at 9.2%. With their robust design, they are able to be deployed in harsh environments, even in facilities with extreme heat, noise, dust, and other variables. Without them, factory automation as we know it would be very different, or possibly not exist at all.
PLCs have been around since the late 60s and, in some ways, haven’t changed very much since then. They fulfill a common need for real-time machine control across vastly different industries and are a mainstay in the culture of manufacturing automation. Yet, as the adoption of new technologies becomes more widespread in the industrial world, PLC systems seem to be lagging behind. That’s why Temboo created a PLC IoT application that would allow businesses of all sizes to upgrade their existing equipment and help improve their legacy systems for the future.
From Industry 3.0 to 4.0
“The programmable controller’s time was right. It invented itself because there was a need for it, and other people had that same need.”
-Dick Morley, “Father of the PLC”
In the second half of the 20th century, factories began incorporating automation technology and sophisticated electronics into their production processes, jumpstarting a period now often referred to as the 3rd Industrial Revolution. PLCs were instrumental in this change in production and a key player in the adoption of Industry 3.0. Now, companies are implementing internet-connected sensors, advanced data systems, and other technologies that fall under the umbrella of “Internet of Things”, a process that’s considered to be the 4th Industrial Revolution. Will PLCs continue to be a ubiquitous part of production processes as more companies introduce cyber-physical systems? Or is the death of the PLC imminent?
At the moment PLCs don’t seem to be going anywhere. They are easy-to-use, reliable, proven to work well, and precise, so removing or changing them in any significant way is unlikely in the near future, especially among small and medium-sized manufacturers. Additionally, many businesses would not be able to support the implementation of new control technology. As Chris Elston, a senior controls engineer at Yamaha Robotics told Control Design, “It can be boiled down to this: There’s a lot of skill set out there in the manufacturing industry, particularly with maintenance personnel or automation technicians, that is oriented to using ladder logic. Most of them don’t understand a scripted language, so they are comfortable with working with PLCs. It’s a workforce issue at that level.”
For these reasons, Temboo decided to create an easy, inexpensive, and user-friendly way to help companies using PLCs gain valuable insights into their operations, without needing to replace expensive legacy systems or requiring personnel to learn a new programming language. But first, we needed to figure out which features industry professionals were looking for in a PLC IoT Application.
So, What Do Professionals Want From Their PLCs?
We were interested in hearing from mechanical and factory engineers, IoT developers, plant automation engineers, and anyone else who works with PLCs on a regular basis about what benefits a connected sensor system could bring to their operations. We spoke with multiple people, across all types of industries, to hear they would find most useful in their specific situations. Below are some of the features that industry professionals said they would want from a PLC IoT Application:
- Oil & Gas: An EPC (engineering, procurement, and construction) contractor working on upgrading gas so that it has a higher methane content before it’s injected into pipelines wants to remotely access the data to monitor the processing and composition of the biogas. Not only would this help them ensure their system is working correctly, it’d also help them with preventative maintenance during their 2 year warranty period so that they could alert the customer of any fixes needed.
- Water Utility: A solid waste processing facility wants to see live trends of what key equipment in their plants are up to every 35 seconds. They’d also like to monitor the health of their phone lines to make sure that they’re working in case of emergency.
- Packaging: A company that makes specialty packaging using injection molding machines is seeking solutions to monitor the machines and and get alerts for downtimes. They also need to be able to retrieve data on the speed of the injection molding machines so that they can get alerted whenever cycle time is affected. This will help optimize their operations and increase output.
- OEM: An OEM that makes chemical processing equipment for paper and water waste processing companies wants to centralize the data from their multiple alarm systems. They’d need to see specifics of what triggered an alarm and be able to view that data remotely. Additionally, they’re seeking a solution with a clean user interface so that the data can be easily interpreted across all departments. Finally, they’d like remote control of the systems so that they do not have to fly a specialist to their out-of-state customers for easily resolved issues.
- Food & Beverage Manufacturing: A company that produces ingredients for the bakery, patisserie, and chocolate sectors is looking to be able to follow specific ID chain protocols and get email alerts. They would also like to automate data collection for FDA and OSHA audits. Finally, they are looking for solutions that provide automated alerts, rather than their current system of manual alerts, for key events like when a boiler goes down.
- Industrial Freezers: A grant-funded company developing a new refrigeration technology needs to be able to save the data they collect to dropbox and remotely monitor their facilities using an online dashboard.
- Mining, Energy & Industrial Manufacturing: An engineering group that advises on solutions for mining, energy, and industrial manufacturing companies wants to offer an IoT service to their customers that can use the instrument and process information that goes to a SCADA system to be hosted in a user friendly cloud service that management and engineering teams can view remotely. They’d also like remote control to be able to turn outputs on and off.
- Industrial Combustion: An engineering group specializing in burner development wants to be able to make burner, furnace, and PLC data readily available over the internet.
Temboo’s PLC IoT Application
After all the research and time spent talking to industry professionals, Temboo created a PLC IoT Application that works for all types of industries: Temboo’s PLC Sensor Alerts and Data Visualization App. This application is for the Siemens SIMATIC S7-1200 PLC and offers the following features:
- Remote Sensor Data and PLC Diagnostic Data Historian: By adding connected sensors to your PLCs you can view sensor data and diagnostic data for your PLC in any web or mobile browser from anywhere that you have an internet connection.
- Alerts: Set up email alerts for when diagnostics and sensor readings hit certain thresholds or according to any other conditions that you’ve set.
- Data Visualization: Our easy-to-read dashboard generates graphs, charts and more for the data from your sensors and PLCs so that anyone who has access can easily interpret and understand the information.
In terms of hardware, all you’ll need is a gateway and any type of sensor that you choose. Gateways, in this instance, are internet connected devices that serve as the main connection point between the data from the PLC and the cloud, and vice versa. Development boards with built in wifi like a Raspberry Pi or a Beaglebone work nicely for this type of PLC IoT application and are cost effective to boot.
There are many benefits offered through Temboo’s solution specifically. First, data visualization and alerts reduce the costs of downtime and unexpected events saving money, time, and resources.
Second, the low-cost of Temboo’s software toolkit compared to other PLC IoT applications on the market enables even small manufacturers to be able gain valuable insights into their remote operations.
Another great benefit of Temboo’s PLC IoT application is the ability to update gateways remotely. Whenever a change is needed, like editing sensor alerts, adding a sensor, or even adding a new PLC, Temboo’s application is able to push the changes over the air without having to physically access the device. This allows users to edit their systems at any time and from anywhere, easily.
Finally, Temboo’s PLC IoT application can lower the bar for entry into this type of digital transformation due to our code generation technology. Even if employees don’t know anything about programming software, they’ll still be able to set up customized alerts and data visualization for PLC systems easily. The setup is quick and our software toolkit machine-generates the necessary code, removing any skill-based barrier of entry for IoT adoption.
Coming Soon: Machine Learning Features & More
This version of Temboo’s PLC IoT application is just a jumping off point. We’re planning on rolling out additional features soon including remote control, support for other PLCs, and the ability to monitor multiple PLCs by different manufacturers in conjunction.
Additionally, Temboo is using machine learning to build out the following intelligence features for upcoming versions of our PLC IoT application:
- Automated alerts: By adding anomaly detection capabilities, this feature will learn what is considered anomalous for a given sensor and proactively send an alert.
- Sensor data prediction: The first step towards predictive maintenance, this feature presents the future state of a given sensor based on past behavior. Users will be able to get a predictions of an individual sensor reading at a specified point in the future.
- Error state prediction: By combining sensor data prediction with knowledge of sensor thresholds, users will be able to get an automated alert about upcoming error states.
- Sensor correlations: This feature explains the relationship between two or more independent streams of sensor data in a way that is actionable by the owner of the data.
- System optimization: This feature takes a specific property of a system like energy usage, and uses sensor data to determine how it should be configured at any given time so that it consumes as little as possible.
As we continue to upgrade our PLC IoT application with these and other new features, we’re looking for help with testing them out. If you work at or own a facility that uses the SIMATIC S7-1200 PLC, please contact us to see how you can be a part of our trial program and get Temboo’s toolkit for free, for a limited time.
Creating Wealth Through Innovation
Dick Morley said the above quote during an interview in 2003, and yet it seems to be even more applicable to the year 2018. Globally, more and more companies are making the move to Industry 4.0, leaving their competitors in the dust. Eventually, there will be no choice but to find more ways and means to gain the significant advantages that industrial IoT offers.
It may seem overwhelming and out of reach to implement these new technologies, but Temboo’s goal is to make it as easy as possible for businesses of all size to evolve with digital transformation. After all, in the business landscape of the 21st century, companies that are willing to embrace digital transformation will be able to grow in ways that companies that can’t adapt will not.
So what are you waiting for? It’s time for everyone to get smart with the data that’s available on their PLCs.