In 2008, physicist Michio Kaku made the startling prediction that the transporter devices seen in Star Trek would become a reality in the next 100 years.

In case you’re unaware of the technology behind these fictional devices, it involves converting a person or object into an energy pattern and then beaming it to a different location where it converts back into its previous form. This allows for almost instantaneous transport between two fixed points.

Transporter chamber aboard the USS Voyager
Transporter Chamber aboard the USS Voyager

Imagine how much time and money teleportation could save a company with thousands of machines located hundreds of miles apart from each other!

While there has been some advances in quantum teleportation, we’re still a long way off from being able to zap a person from one place to another.

One alternative to teleportation that is available now, is using the Internet of Things to monitor and diagnose issues on remote equipment.

This post will look into a real-life scenario faced by a water company with vending machines scattered all over the Southwestern United States, and how a remote monitoring IoT system could have helped them to save money and time on maintenance expenses.

Money, Quality, and Reputation: The Price of Downtime

water vending machine
Image via wikimedia

The aforementioned company provided water vending machines for refilling those large water coolers often found in workplaces, dentist offices, and other office spaces.

As with any piece of machinery, these water vending machines would experience downtime issues periodically. Sometimes they’d be entirely offline, while other malfunctions might leave the vending machine still functioning, but producing lower quality water.

Every minute of downtime was money the company was leaving on the table. What’s more, their reputation as a company relied on ensuring that their customers were receiving only the freshest and most pure drinking water that their vending machines were designed to provide.

The Long Road to Machine Maintenance

Imagine sending maintenance personnel from San Francisco, CA to Phoenix, AZ; or Berlin to Belgrade; or Bogotá to Lima every time you received a report of a broken machine.

For this water company, making sure their machines were up and running was a huge priority.  However, maintaining these water vending machines that were scattered across the Southwest US was a major challenge due to the distances between the locations of the machines.

Map of the Southwest United StatesImage via americansouthwest.net

There were hundreds of vending machines, sometimes circling a thousand, spread throughout each state.

Difficult to Maintain Maintenance Procedures

As a company with a geographically dispersed network of equipment, they employed a large team of regional technicians to maintain their water vending machines.

Here’s how their equipment maintenance operations worked:

1. Technicians drove to each machine in their territory to manually retrieve diagnostic information from the onboard computer.

2. After collecting the raw data from each water vending machine in their territory, the technician emailed these files to the central office.

3. Office staff manually input this raw data into a local database (likely an excel spreadsheet) one territory at a time.

Remember, there were at least hundreds of machines per state.

4. Management reviewed the data, filing maintenance tickets as needed.

5. The technicians then were sent these maintenance requests from management. 

Sometimes they were able to diagnose what was wrong and what parts were needed for repair. Sometimes they were unable to tell what was wrong until they physically inspected the vending machine.

6. Next, the technicians drove out to each machine in their territory that needed servicing to either repair or troubleshoot what may or may not have been the issue.

7. Finally, the technicians returned to the machines they were unable to fix the first time with the parts required to repair them.

This system was tedious for the whole team – from the office admin doing manual data entry, to the management team manually reviewing the spreadsheets, to the maintenance technicians required to drive back and forth across their territory.

However, these tasks were more than just tedious. They were actually jeopardizing the long-term success of the business.

The Not-So-Hidden Costs of Manual Data Collection

Remote Monitoring Icons

At this point, it is important to reflect on the knock-on effects of inefficient maintenance procedures:

1. Labor was one of the company’s highest costs.

The amount of employee time required to collect, input, analyze, and act on their machine data resulted in unnecessarily bloated labor costs for the company. And speaking of time:

2. Maintenance issues for their vending machines could go undiagnosed for weeks due to this inefficient process.

As a company that prided themselves on offering fresh, pure drinking water, the need to overhaul how they maintained their remote equipment was extremely important.

By being able to monitor and remotely take action on their machine data they would be able to better manage their labor costs, make better use of employee time, and consistently deliver a higher quality product.

An IoT System for Remote Monitoring

So how can companies like the one in this post get started with remote monitoring of their machines? Our post on the 7 questions to ask when building an IoT system for Condition Monitoring is a good place to start. Let’s see how this water company answered the questions we outlined:

1. Assets: What equipment do you want to monitor and how will you use the data?

In this case, the company wanted to monitor the regionally distributed water vending machines. Remote data collection would enable them to diagnose mechanical issues remotely, while also reducing the time that staff spent collecting this information.

2. Data Variables: What information do you want to collect about your equipment?

We were in luck – these machines already had an onboard monitoring system that stored data locally.

The system used sensors to measure things like the pH, ionization, and mineral content of the water. The onboard computer also tracked diagnostic information on things like sudden pressure drops and on/off motor cycles.

3. Performance: What is the sensing range for your data?

The existing onboard sensors had already been determined to have an adequate sensing range for the company’s immediate needs.

4. Data Sampling: How often do you plan to review your data?

Their current workflow took weeks to get visibility into their operational performance. When they did review their data, it was at risk of being out of sync with the machine’s current performance.

The company determined that having this data uploaded once daily was more than enough. This was particularly important in lowering their connectivity costs because of our next question:

5. Connectivity: Do you have an internet connection in the area of the equipment?

No.

The water company informed us that each point of sale either had no available internet connection or they could not reliably depend on the store allowing them to add an outside device to their internal network.

Even when the stores would allow them to share an internet connection, the water company could not depend on the store to maintain security best practices or inform them when something like the network password changed.

We ultimately determined that a cellular internet connection would be their best option. Reflecting on question 4 above, batch updates to the cloud would help lower the connectivity costs of the system.

6. Power: Is there a power source near the equipment?

Yes, these water vending machines had pre-existing access to a reliable source of wired power that we could take advantage of.

7. Environment: Is your equipment indoors or outdoors?

The equipment was located outdoors. Typically, this would mean that all hardware needed to be rated for harsh environmental conditions.

In this case, our work was made easier by the fact that such considerations had been included in the original design of the machine and onboard monitoring system.

The System Requirements For Remote Monitoring

With Temboo’s Kosmos System, this water company and their staff would be able to launch an IoT system that monitored the condition of their remote equipment from any internet-connected mobile phone or computer.

To recap, it included:

  • Onboard sensors, actuators, and diagnostic tools already present and embedded in the machines. The vending machine acts as an edge device in this use case.
  • A cellular gateway, like a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B with a GSM (cellular) shield, capable of pulling data from the remote monitoring system. This enables the gateway device to transfer data to Temboo’s servers.
  • A subscription to Temboo’s Kosmos system and dashboard for remote monitoring.

The water vending company had a vague sense of the different moving parts involved in building an IoT system for their needs but they struggled with being able to bridge the gap between what they knew was possible and what they were capable of accomplishing alone.

That’s Where Kosmos Can Help

Kosmos is a powerful software toolkit that lets anyone develop, deploy, and manage your own IoT systems – no coding required.

Upon deployment, Temboo’s Kosmos system provides you with:

  • Remote data collection and cloud storage
  • Data visualizations
  • Alert capabilities via SMS or Email
  • On-demand or sensor-driven actuator control
  • A suite of additional features

As more and more data is collected, your application can begin benefiting from our machine learning tools for:

  • Predictive maintenance alerts
  • Anomaly detection
  • System optimization

If you would like to learn more about Kosmos, I recommend you read our high level overview of everything that Kosmos offers.

Augmenting Existing Equipment with IoT Capabilities

manufacturing workers

The water vending company was also interested in adding additional sensors that were not included in the original design of their local condition monitoring system.

They determined that these new metrics would be valuable to the company, but did not have the budget for a complete system redesign.

There are a few clear paths forward in augmenting or retrofitting existing systems to provide new or additional remote monitoring capabilities.

Our conversations with potential partners usually reveal one of two things:

1. The company has instrumented equipment, but the data is only available locally through something like an HMI. They might also be restricted in what they can do with that data due to things like vendor lock and gaps in their software know-how.

2. Their equipment has no onboard sensors or sensors connected to something like a Programmable Logic Controller.

At its core, the water vending company fell into the first bucket. They had a monitoring system, but no way to access this data without sending technicians out to physically retrieve it from their remote equipment.

Securing IoT Project Success Over a Perfect System

The organizational hurdle of building a remote monitoring system is already quite high. Expanding a scope of work so ambitiously can put the success of a project at risk.

We spoke with the company and were able to get everyone on the same page. We determined that initial project success was a far higher priority than having the perfect system. We then shared with them how external sensors might be implemented in the future and agreed to revisit adding them after the pilot.

But could Temboo have helped with this?

Yes.

Temboo’s Kosmos system is hardware and protocol agnostic.

We’re able to augment existing equipment by working with the systems that are already in place. And if the equipment you need to monitor does not have the necessary sensors, they can usually be added to, on, or near whatever it is you would like to monitor.

A good example: using relatively low cost hardware to enable remote vibration monitoring and analysis.

The vibration sensors do not need to be wired into the machinery itself – you can instead place them on the outside to collect sufficient data for this purpose.

Do You Need Your Own IoT System for Remote Monitoring?

Whether your equipment is all under one roof or spread out across the world, your IoT system for remote monitoring can be ready to launch in as little as two weeks.

Submit your answers to Temboo’s 7 system guideline questions to see how we can help:

Get Started Now

Interested in learning how other companies benefit from remote monitoring? Check out our case study covering how a multinational food production company benefited from Temboo’s IoT software, or email us at hey@temboo.com.

Posted by:Matthew Plaks, Product Outreach

Matthew is on the Product Outreach team at Temboo. He helps companies across industries gain visibility into process performance, product quality, and equipment health with IoT technologies. He's personally passionate about climate change, food systems, and water quality – all of which stand to benefit from internet-connected sensor systems.