YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — A significant number of us, whether we know it or not, have been introduced to the Internet of Things — or IoT. From using Amazon Alexa to remotely adjusting a home thermostat from a smartphone, society and the devices that power it today are more interconnected than ever.
The same goes for business and industry, as advocates of the technology urge companies to adapt to opportunities that can make them more competitive in the global market, experts say.
For now, however, the leap into this technology is in its infancy and will require some tweaking, says Rick Stockburger, president and CEO of Brite Energy Innovators, an energy business incubator in Warren.
“The adoption curve just helps people understand what it’s all about,” Stockburger says.
That’s why Brite and the Youngstown Business Incubator have formed a partnership to encourage the growth of the Industrial Internet of Things, or Industrial IOT, in the Mahoning Valley. In October, the joint effort received nearly $313,000 in federal grants obtained through U.S. Representative Tim Ryan’s office, D-17 Ohio, to help integrate industrial IoT into small and medium-sized businesses across the region.
“People want to understand this technology and they’re happy to have someone to help them figure out what’s doable, what’s not, and figure out what’s best for them,” says Barb Ewing, CEO from YBI.
The partnership allows organizations like YBI to help implement this technology for companies that, for example, use advanced manufacturing. Or, in Brite’s case, it could be introduced to companies that focus on energy-related products.
At the heart of industrial IOT is data, says Ewing. This data is often generated from devices or sensors attached to equipment that can generate real-time information for operators and managers to assess productivity, efficiency and output.
“It takes basic concepts to the next level,” says Ewing. Data produced from a certain machine, for example, could identify a potential problem such as a component that needs to be replaced. By capturing this information, the company is able to take action and correct the problem before damage is done to equipment or causes unnecessary downtime.
“It lets you do things that are important to operations — basic things like preventive maintenance or identifying gaps in the supply chain,” Ewing says.
As companies become more familiar with handling and analyzing this data, they could use it for other operations on the shop floor. Depending on the nature of the business, they could also leverage this technology for more advanced uses, such as remote operation or monitoring production across an entire plant.
Applying this technology in heavier manufacturing environments could prove difficult. Even industrial producers such as Vallourec’s seamless tube and pipe operations in Youngstown and Houston are in the early stages of exploring opportunities with industrial IoT.
“We’re early on this path,” says Pat Kiraly, Vallourec’s North American director for Industry 4.0, a kind of catch-all term for emerging automation and technological advances in manufacturing.
Kiraly says its very title highlights Vallourec’s interest in digitally transforming the company’s operations. “I see the Industrial IoT as an opportunity to collect even more data, which is a good thing,” he says. The real challenge is to properly digest and analyze this data, in addition to the data currently produced by operations.
Also, making seamless pipes and tubes is not the same as using a CNC machine which might be more easily monitored, Kiraly says. Using sensors or tags embedded in the pipe for tracking purposes, he points out, could be useful and efficient, but particularly difficult to achieve.
“Put the ID on a pipe that’s 1,500 degrees – that’s hard to do since the environment is so harsh,” Kiraly says. “But if we can do those things, we could do other things.”
Kiraly characterizes Vallourec’s first foray as a “precursor of industrial IoT”. That is, take the first step to assess where this technology could be introduced.
One operation is the drilling process at the Youngstown plant, Kiraly says. The pipes are introduced into the drilling operation as solid billets and then heated to high temperatures. The billet is then perforated with a piercing tip, forming the outer casing of the pipe.
The idea would be to add sensors to the drill points so they can collect process-related data, Kiraly says. “There are still some things that are not easy to understand,” he says of the piercing operation. “We are looking to leverage some of this technology to better understand the process through the use of sensors.”
The introduction of industrial IoT would allow Vallourec to extract data it was previously unable to collect, says Kiraly. “The next step is how you use this data. At the same time, this technology allows you to push those limits even further.
Ultimately, this technology is likely to play a much larger role in how manufacturers, distributors, sellers and other sectors of the economy conduct business, Brite’s Stockburger says.
“We are excited to partner with YBI to implement this and help companies realize what could be done,” he said.
Industrial IoT offers businesses the ability to collect data that can better influence decisions. “It’s about using actionable data before there’s a problem,” says Stockburger.
Additionally, Industrial IoT opens the door to expansion for companies that develop and manufacture sensor technology, Stockburger says.
He says that one of Brite’s portfolio companies, Intwine Connect, develops industrial IoT and IoT applications for clients in healthcare, manufacturing, food safety, education and energy. .
“It’s not just the manufacturers,” says Stockburger. Intwine, he notes, developed an app for a national hand sanitizer company that automatically changes vendors when its sanitizing stations run out and need restocking. “There are so many efficiencies,” he says.
Stockburger wants to encourage other IoT companies to consider moving into the Mahoning Valley region to develop its products, he says.
“Then we could help bring these companies to market so they can make better IoT products for the industry.”
One such company is Wooster-based Harmoni, a YBI holding company.
“I’ve been consulting for CNC machine shops for 25 years,” says Adam Ellis, CEO of Harmoni. It was in this role that he noticed a host of workshop inefficiencies that he believed could be corrected. “Operators would come and go to PC terminals to track their time and production,” he says, while using even more time to locate data storage devices to load specific programs onto a certain machine.
“Some guys would even load the wrong program,” says Ellis. “It’s losing minutes here and there that really add up, especially in the high-end CNC space with aerospace and defense,” he says.
Starting with the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his business partner spent three years developing a new device that plugs into the controls of a CNC machine. This product is able to collect and provide specific data such as time tracking, production, the correct schedule for the machine – even work instructions on how to complete the job, Ellis explains.
“We combine all of that and take this big stream of data coming from the machine and pair it with the working time,” says Ellis. An operator, for example, is automatically identified and pointed to the machine. This operator can be at a machine for eight hours. Only six of those hours were spent on machining or cutting. The other two hours could have been spent waiting for an input or some type of component change.
“That way you could read real-time data on the machines,” he explains, including tool life and machine performance.
Harmoni has completed beta testing and is now beginning to ship the device, Ellis said. “We’ve found some success with it,” he says. A recent webinar hosted by the company attracted 87 attendees.
Companies that are the first to streamline their operations by adopting industrial IoT technology have a better chance of becoming more competitive and profitable, says Ellis.
“There are opportunities, but there are also challenges for businesses,” he says. “People who can really get it right now are going to be able to take advantage of all the relocations going on and improve on all levels.”
Pictured above: Adam Ellis, CEO of Harmoni.
Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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