Your challenges in the field of retrofitting

One of the major trends over the last few years – digitalization – poses a huge challenge for many companies when it comes to selecting the most suitable technology or platform. The Internet of Things (IoT) plays a central role in the digital transformation process, enabling the seamless integration of the different technologies into business processes and flows. For this reason, the use of the possibilities offered by the Internet of Things is vital in order to improve overall performance and remain competitive.

How digital transformation comes about

Numerous IoT application scenarios might precisely match the needs of your company and enable access to new business models without major investment being necessary. For example, condition/remote maintenance is one of the most widespread IoT applications in small and medium-sized companies. According to a recent survey by Deutsche Telekom, it is already used by 57% of companies and planned by a further 19%. Remote control is similar, being used by 58% of companies and planned by 14%. 

However, on their journey towards the optimum usage of an IoT application, many companies are faced with the challenge of old production machines with insufficient connectivity. Cyber security is one of the critical aspects involved in the connection of machines to the IoT.

A significant percentage of older devices are not designed to communicate beyond the company intranet.

Due to the limited time frame for support, it’s not possible to update old machines accordingly. For this reason, devices of this kind do not have the advanced security functions required to provide effective protection against current threats.

Even if the machine manufacturer still supports legacy software, this can be impossibly complex. Often, such software is unwieldy and poorly documented with an unmanageable quantity of code lines. This complexity means that it is difficult for developers to experiment with modern technologies since even small changes might result in major problems. Consequently, access to the data of sensors that are installed in old plants is often possible only manually.

In a scenario of this kind, a employee must download the data from the machine and format it in order to be able to perform an analysis. A new, expensive machine must be procured for the automation of this process. In addition, the machine manufacturer won’t retrofit the sensors inside the machine or configure how the data is processed or protected; probably, the manufacturer would prefer to simply sell new devices.

Ultimately, there are two main approaches for the integration of legacy devices into an IoT solution:

  1. Replacing the old machines with modern, IoT-capable variants. The main disadvantage of this method is that replacing the machines can be really expensive. In addition, the replacement process can take a long time, especially if the production processes or parts of the existing infrastructure need to be modified. Despite this, the investment in modern machines forms part of a long-term strategy. Depending on the existing infrastructure, this might enable improved connectivity and better integration into the existing IoT ecosystem.
  2. Modernization of old machines. This approach, called retrofitting, enhances the abilities of old machines and increases their life time by removing the need to replace them. Modernization through the integration of different sensors generally requires lesser levels of investment than a full replacement.

The benefits of a retrofit

The manufacturing industry is one of the major beneficiaries of the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT contributes to the optimization of production efficiency, enables Industry 4.0 with new business models, and much more. The underlying components are modern sensors and actuators that allow you to capture valuable data and send it to a range of devices for further processing. However, machines that we still find in use in industry today are frequently more than a decade old, which means that they offer only restricted possibilities for supplying data or connecting with the Internet. Buying new, appropriately equipped machines is profitable only in certain specific cases. An interesting alternative here is retrofitting the machines that are not currently fit for IoT purposes. This allows even older machines to generate data, exchange information, and interact with other IoT devices.

For many companies, retrofitting is the most cost-effective option for integrating old machines into an IoT solution. Without major effort, the old machines are fitted out in order to become part of the modern digital architecture, enabling access to data without further manual interventions.

Integration of IIoT in your production facilities

The retrofitted technology helps with the collection of valuable information on matters such as energy consumption, production speed, production performance, vibrations, humidity, and temperature – important data for condition monitoring. The evaluation of this data can lead to the more efficient use of the machines and an increase in the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). In addition, the analyzed data can help to detect early signs of mechanical problems and to avoid downtimes through preventative maintenance. Potentially, this data could help to discover new, additional sources of revenue.

How a retrofit works

If you decide on retrofitting as the right solution for the integration of older machines into your digital production system, there are two different approaches/technologies that can be used to retrofit existing plants and machines:

  1. Smart sensors
  2. Edge gateways

Detecting errors with smart sensors

Smart sensors are standalone products that are either attached to production machines or placed along a production line. This solution can detect malfunctions and downtimes through the absence of motor vibrations, for example. In general, only a few adjustments to the machines are required in order to use a solution of this kind. This means that the implementation time and production downtime are minimal.

Retrofit using smart sensors.
Source: Own representation

Some companies offer end-to-end services where only the sensors need to be set up and configured so that the customer can subsequently receive real-time feedback. Usually, desktop applications and mobile solutions are available for this. If measured values exceed a threshold value, pre-configured events can be triggered such as the sending of a notification. Smart sensor variants of this kind enable extensive configuration and integration with various IoT frameworks and platforms but require more setup efforts than those mentioned previously.

The main advantages of smart sensors

  • Low production downtime
  • Creation of simple reports or notifications
  • Some smart sensors can be enhanced through the addition of extra functions, longer battery life, or even a greater reach
  • Easy to get started with real-time insights into certain parts of the production process

But there are also two major disadvantages:

  1. The first disadvantage is the lack of a high-level analysis function through the combination of sensor data from points along the production or business process.
  2. The second disadvantage concerns the restrictions of the newly added sensors, which cannot access “internal” machine data. As a rule, information about the work step that is currently being performed or the relative utilization of the machine cannot be derived from external measurements such as vibrations, temperature, or pressure.

Using edge gateways for extra flexibility

The alternative is the use of specialized edge gateways that combine the data of different sensor types in order to increase flexibility and gain more insights into business processes.

Edge gateway as a key element of Retrofit.
Source: Own representation

Edge gateways combine industrial sensors with the Internet and send/receive data to/from local servers (on-premise) or cloud service providers. Usually, cloud integration is included in the gateway, simplifying the setup and configuration process, particularly the protocol translation and registration of the connected devices in the cloud. In contrast, an on-premise solution protects the user from dependency on a cloud provider.

Gateways are not simply passive connections between sensors and servers. They can make calculations directly on the device in order to reduce bandwidth and latency and keep sensitive or private data locally.

The main advantages of gateways

  • Detailed monitoring and control of processes and machines
  • Can be enhanced and configured
  • Easy communication with local servers or cloud services
  • Lower latencies
  • Operational even at a lower bandwidth level
  • Compliance with data protection regulations

However, the integration of gateways is associated with costs. In order to communicate with the edge device, the sensors or programmable logic controllers (PLCs) of production machines must support certain protocols. The most common are OPC UA for communication with PLCs and IO-Link for sensors. A hybrid approach involves replacing some old sensors with new ones that support the required communication protocol. However, this isn’t always possible and must be checked on a case-by-case basis.

In comparison to retrofitting with smart sensors, the equipping of machines with new sensors for edge gateways is associated with greater downtimes and increased work effort. In addition, the integration of these edge computing devices into existing IoT solutions and platforms may require the redesign of the infrastructure. In the case of greenfield projects in which edge devices are used as the point of entry for IoT solutions, the effort required for the initial setup and integration processes should not be underestimated. An experienced external company can provide valuable help with correctly checking the complexity and potential benefits of a solution.

Our retrofit services

The integration of the IoT has the potential to bring about fundamental changes in your company. However, older production machines in particular were not designed for the digital exchange of information. Some of these machines were designed for decades of use and are too expensive to simply replace them with more modern variants. Retrofitting can provide a sensible solution to this problem.

Get your machines ready for Industry 4.0!

We want to work with you to quickly and smoothly integrate a retrofit solution into your company. Retrofitting is the first major step towards digital transformation. However, integration into an existing infrastructure is associated with restrictions and needs to be checked thoroughly. For this reason, we offer our expertise and can help you to make a sound decision and set up a future-oriented solution.

Among other things, we offer:

  • The design of the most suitable retrofit solution
  • An evaluation of your requirements in the context of the existing machines and infrastructure
  • The design of a future-safe architecture
  • Support during the transition process
  • Demonstration of condition/remote monitoring with our partner CloudRail
  • Solution implementation

We’ll help you to achieve the successful digital transformation of your production facilities – why not contact us right away?

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Jonas Grundler Director New Business Development