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Industrial smart, connected products: customers’ concerns

Industrial smart, connected products: customers’ concerns

An article by Alex Grizhnevich*, process automation and IoT consultant at ScienceSoft.

New technologies oftentimes cause much hype ranging from bright perspectives to threatening warnings and concerns. Nowadays, the Internet of Things faces a similar fate. On the one side, smart connected products promise substantial advantages for businesses and even whole industries. However, there is a bunch of the issues that might frighten potential users. And it’s not only because of the stereotypes – there are the preoccupations based on a great deal of reality.

In this article we show the concerns of a potential customer – a factory planning to enhance a part of the production flow with a smart, connected product.

Loss of control

Unlike traditional industrial equipment which is fully managed locally, a smart, connected product (due to the peculiarities of its architecture) is sending information to and receives the commands from a vendor’s cloud. The control over a smart, connected product is split between a product user and a product manufacturer (and sometimes a third-party service organization serving similar products provided by various vendors). With the limited access to the information gathered by a smart, connected product and limited control over such a product (which influences the control over the whole production flow), customers may have the concerns regarding resorting to such equipment and even abandon this idea.

This issue can be addressed with a service-level agreement with a vendor. Customers and vendors discuss beforehand the terms of using a smart, connected product, and customers get the info about how much access to a smart, connected product will be available for the customer.

smart industrial diagram by Science Soft

Dependency on a vendor

Providers of smart, connected products run their own business, and a logical question appears on the customer side: what if a vendor changes his business strategy or goes bankrupt? Of course, such points can be scheduled in the customer agreement. But, anyway, a customer is vulnerable to the shifts on the vendor’s side, and these changes may tangibly undermine a customer’s business processes and even reputation.

An enterprise may consider a multivendor strategy, but it can be more expensive and difficult to implement and thus require more effort (finding reliable vendors, integrating smart connected products they offer into the production flow in an enterprise) and investments. What is more, there is still no guarantee that the risks of emergencies due to a vendor’s fault will be minimized.

Integration into SCADA

It’s hard to imagine a case when a smart, connected product is used separately – it usually serves a certain stage of production as an element of a production chain. The issue is that this element dramatically differs from the others – while it’s connected to a vendor’s cloud (which receives the data from this smart, connected product and sends commands to it). The rest of the equipment is controlled by a customer (or even by other smart, connected product vendors – which is a far more complex situation, and we’ll cover it in the coming articles). Thus, it becomes difficult to coordinate the activities of the equipment managed by various parties.

A customer’s team (or teams) providing production monitoring and maintenance may lack important information regarding the performance of a smart, connected product (or such information may come with the delays from a vendor), and it may be a serious obstacle to improving production flow.
What is more, a vendor may be not fully informed about the specifics of the production cycle on the customer’s side and may have little or no access to the info about the rest of industrial equipment of a customer (this info might be also needed to get a full picture of the production flow – what if the results of the stage preceding a smart, connected product are unsatisfactory, and the problems in the production flow are not because of this product; moreover, if a smart, connected product is doing its job not very well, it may be understood only in later stages).

Addressing this issue begins with at the early stages of implementing a smart, connected product into the production flow and should be clearly defined in service-level agreement between a customer and a vendor (as well as distribution of responsibilities, access of a vendor to a user’s monitoring data and customer’s access to the info (held by a vendor) about a smart, connected product). However, some changes may be needed when a product is already in use – an effective smart, connected product needs a great deal of tuning.

Integration into factory-wide process automation

For automated production flow control, companies use PLC-based controlling systems. In this case, SCADA gathers the info from all the machinery in the factory and controls the equipment. The challenge with a smart, connected product is that it cannot be connected to a SCADA the same way as the rest of the equipment (due to the connectivity to a vendor’s cloud), but such a product still needs to work in coherence with the rest of the equipment. A customer and a vendor need to coordinate a customer’s SCADA and a cloud part of a smart, connected product and ensure stable and effective data exchange between these systems.

Connectivity dependence

Smart, connected products are strongly dependent on the quality of the connectivity throughout the whole IoT system. Just imagine the journey of the data from sensors to the cloud and back to things’ actuators. When this chain becomes inefficient even in one small passage, the whole circle brings no value. As a result, users may lose important data, smart, connected products may malfunction, and the breakdowns in the IoT system may cost a pretty penny.

Cost-related issues

Smart, connected products may bring both short-term cost reduction via less maintenance costs and long-term outcomes due to higher performance. For example, resorting to IoT-enabled predictive maintenance, a factory can save money by removing traditional monitoring and repairing schedules with fixing potential problems before they cause equipment breakdowns, and these benefits are especially tangible in a long-term perspective (considering the costs of industrial equipment and time and money to repair it when serious damage is done). Moreover, such an approach eliminates the necessity to slow down or stop production when certain pieces of equipment are or about to be out of order.

However, it’s not always clear how much an IoT solution would cost, and some risks regarding the return on investment turn up the pressure. In this respect, it’s evident that customers expect maximum transparency and accuracy from vendors to be sure that they can afford necessary functionality at the beginning. It’s also possible to resolve to the IoT consulting services to plan and implement smooth IoT development and adoption.

Security vulnerabilities

Security issues, which are quite not new in IT, go to the next round of concerns with the development of IoT. Poorly secured smart, connected products become an entry point for cybercriminals and can spread malware. What is more, the holes in the IoT system security shield give third parties the opportunities to steal sensor data and priceless big data warehouse records and even take control of smart, connected products to make them serve their purposes.

On the one side, it’s a vendor’s responsibility to ensure efficient cybersecurity of a smart, connected product (for example, regulating user authentication, device identification, data encryption and related procedures). On the other side, a customer’s behavior may provoke security vulnerabilities.

Endnote

Despite of the strong operational potential, smart, connected products can bring a bunch of painful issues that may influence the productivity of the whole IoT system and escalate customer dissatisfaction. The list of potential concerns includes dependency on vendors and connectivity, difficulties of integrating a new smart equipment into the existing production process, security issues, the preoccupations regarding the return on investment and more. However, everything is not as hopeless as it may seem at first glance.

Addressing these issues begins at the early stages of IoT implementation by clearly defining the areas of responsibility of all the parties involved (a vendor, a customer and a third-party service company in some cases). It’s also no less important that business players themselves should have a clear vision of what they expect from smart, connected products and be able to communicate this vision to consultants and technical specialists.

Alex Grizhnevich is a process automation and IoT consultant at ScienceSoft, an IT consulting and software development company headquartered in McKinney, Texas. His 17+ years’ experience in IT and OT includes programming industrial microcontrollers, developing web and desktop applications, databases and document management solutions for oil & gas and logistics. Holding the degree in automation and management of industrial processes, Alex is now focusing on IoT and machine learning on sensor data.
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