While the decision to implement an IIoT / connected factory / Industry 4.0 (or alike) solution is a no brainer, choosing and onboarding the right IIoT solutions remains a big challenge.
The variety of IIoT platforms and software solutions out there is overwhelming. I encounter new, promising solutions on a daily basis! It seems that every business that holds some sort of relationship with manufacturers gladly enters the IIoT game, be it an inhouse developed solution, a point solution, distribution-based collaboration or the like.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that manufacturers trying to onboard Industry 4.0 are having trouble understanding the differences between solutions and the benefits of each.
This makes the decision-making process long and tedious and the result is that companies are busy with pilots and evaluations rather than successfully implementing solutions.
IIoT solutions vendors on the other hand, do their best to provide prospects with a world of relevant pre-purchase data, but it’s hard to expect full transparency, at least during early exploring stages. And besides, it remains the manufacturers’ responsibility (yes, you) to ask the right questions.
I’ve always appreciated potential customers that challenge me and ask the hard questions. I know that they will be very successful with the deployment of new technologies and make the most out of the IIoT solution. Some of them even manage to get the team on board with brainstorming how to fulfil requests, challenge us with higher requirements for factory digitalization and that’s always good for business evolution.
Therefore, I thought you would appreciate a descent list of the most important and relevant questions that you should ask, before selecting your IIoT partner for the road.
1. What sets a solution apart from other established IIoT companies?
The simplest question is sometimes the hardest one to answer!
Why choose you? Why are you better than other solutions out there?
When it comes to IIoT solutions, some customers are at a complete loss. Obviously, they know what industry 4.0 is all about. They are even familiar with the trends or with related areas (e.g. IIoT in supply chain collaboration), but more often than not they can’t tell why they are working with a specific IIoT solution and how it is different from others.
You would be surprised, though, to know how huge the differences between vendors and platforms really are.
For instance, some solutions are focused on discrete manufacturing while others specialize in the process industry. Why is this important? Well, discrete manufacturers have specific challenges, risks, working methods, complexity and so on. They must use a vendor that knows the ropes in their journey.
Additionally, some companies focus on a single application or point solution such as predictive maintenance for a specific machine, while others offer a holistic solution that can cover the needs of the entire factory floor or even the entire supply chain. It is important to clarify from the start how far on the IIoT journey a specific solution can support you. How many of your current and future production challenges could be addressed by the solution and applications offered.
Another example relates to the main benefits of the solutions: while many solutions focus on tracking important parameters, collecting data, and offering reports or simple dashboards, only a few of them will provide AI-based actionable insights and alerts that can turn a smart device into meaningful improvement in the manufacturing process that can then be translated into real savings. Smart devices are the means, not the goal. It’s one thing to know the exact location of your tools but it’s a whole different thing to receive an alert with a clear recommendation, ‘tool X requires service, use tool Y instead’, based on the actual duty cycles the tool has gone through or ‘work order X is misplaced’ based on machine learning of routes of past work orders.
2. Does the solution include decision-making support and an optimization layer?
When talking about IIoT, other words such as ‘the smart factory’ are raised, and quite rightfully so. The big promise of IIoT is not only about collection of data (though it is a big part of it), but about delivering actionable insights based on this data that can help factory staff and management to optimize their daily decision-making processes, make less mistakes, reduce waste, increase scale and boost revenues.
But, only a few of the IIoT related solutions can fulfil that promise.
Why? Well, it requires an in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes and the business challenges various vertical industries face as well as vast experience in AI algorithms and optimization methods. Our experience shows that there is no one-size-fits-all magical solution that can address all problems related to production. Not to mention that in some cases you do not have enough data to run machine learning and the solution resides in other methods. Bottom line is you need to deeply understand both manufacturing, IoT methods to collect the data and AI methods to deliver benefits and process improvements out of the collected data.
Many of these vendors identified a ‘low-hanging fruit’ – The need of factories to get digital and connected. They can fulfil this need relatively easily, connecting one type of machines or devices, but that’s just part of the game.
Why is it not enough?
Simple! Modern manufacturing requires real-time decisions, scale based on a long and growing list of variables and constraints. The demand constantly grows, and the effort is beyond what humans can take. If manufacturers wish to maintain quality, they must turn to technology that not only knows to collect data but also knows how to use it to derive the right actions.
Consider McKinsey’s statement that ‘Most of the IoT data collected today is not used at all, and the data that is used is not fully made use of.’ They gave the example of an oil rig with 30,000 sensors where less than 1% of the data generated by this large collection of sensors was ever used.
Choosing a solution that offers actionable insights, predictions and suggestions is the missing element.
3. What does experience in a specific industry mean?
Right after you make sure the IIoT solution you are considering has unique benefits that suit your demand and offers optimization as well as monitoring, you should check which industries it was implemented in, and for how long.
Does it specialize in discrete manufacturing? Aerospace? Automotive? Industrial Manufacturing? Medical devices?
It doesn’t have to be your exact industry, but it is recommended to work with a vendor that knows a thing or two about your specific challenges and has gained experience in your (or a similar) ecosystem. This is important since an experienced IIoT vendor will know how to help you onboard the solution for your specific needs, can help you with concrete suggestions and insights, can offer relevant insights regarding cyber and data security issues and can connect you with other industry players that can support you further.
4. What is your position when it comes to security? Will it offer authentication & authorization of all components or users?
Industry 4.0 introduces a new kind of security risks: cybersecurity risks. Gartner’s pessimistic prediction that: ‘by 2020, more than 25 percent of identified attacks in enterprises will involve IoT’ , is actually quite realistic. Take for example the handful of industrial cyber-attacks: Stuxnet, The Havex, WannaCry, Petya and so on.
I can say with confidence that cybersecurity risks shouldn’t be dismissed.
In fact, descent IIoT solutions face it head on: They develop systems that offer encryption and authorisation, that run on HTTPS protocol (secure protocol), include threat detection, firewalls, VPN and password changes, and provide an architecture that is resilient enough in case there is a breach.
And I haven’t even talked about their service offering if there was a data security threat (or god forbid, a successful attack).
Besides these necessary external security steps, make sure the solution you choose is also internally safe. Ask if development and production share the same cloud environment (server), if they do, that may cause a problem that opens you up for human errors. Ask who has permission to access the development cycle of the IIoT solution.
Yes, an extra careful vendor is indeed a safer one to work with.
5. How does customer support with setup, training and ongoing maintenance work?
This is a question that I hear a lot, and an issue that keeps being raised by our new customers. Yes, this part many times isn’t examined thoroughly enough during the vendor selection process, but has huge implications on the success of the project.
Therefore, make sure to double check the level of professional services the solution offers to help you get up and running, as well as the level of support they offer regarding training your team, ongoing availability, response time, problems they fix and so forth.
Don’t be shy. Dig around on their website and look for references and success stories and ask the provider for references.
The vendor of your choice should also offer experienced consultants that have the proven proficiency required for successful deployment and ongoing working process, taking care of the various stages starting from project definition, process mapping, through integration to your existing systems, system configuration, testing and fine-tuning, successful launch and maintenance.
Try to understand how active the development side might be … ask about a road map, how frequently version updates occur including the upgrade process and if it causes any production downtime (it shouldn’t) and the availability of the development team to fix bugs. All of these criteria will give you an understanding of what to expect in terms of feature updates, bug fixes and improvements. Believe me, these needs will come up at some point, so it’s important to know that you’re working with, it’s always recommended to work with a company that is constantly innovating and developing new aps to follow new market trends.
One last thing, don’t forget to also ask if a dedicated account manager will be assigned to your needs. Having a single focal point makes day to day management much friendlier.
6. How easily can the solution fit into your current IT environment?
No IIoT solution operates in a vacuum, in the majority of cases it is necessary that the platform of your choice will be open and flexible so it will be able to integrate or communicate with other 3rd party systems, such as ERP, MES, inventory management systems, manufacturing planning systems, CAD/PLM and alike.
As most manufacturers are already integrated with multiple legacy systems, this is a must to ensure the continuity of information flow, avoiding the need to re-enter data, complex migrations or loss of data.
Furthermore, you’ll need a system that is compatible with different kinds of communication protocols. Since one of the main problems in our industrial manufacturing ecosystem is lack of standardization, you may have legacy systems that use multiple communication protocols and are based on various industry standards. Hence, the IIoT system you choose should support the common communication protocols.
7 . What about scaling production to fit the market demand? How will the IoT solution deal with that?
Who said that the holy grail doesn’t come with pains? Growth always takes its toll, and in this case, scaling has multiple implications on existing software (and hardware as well).
Your chosen IIoT solution should be as prepared for tomorrow as best as possible. After all, its main purpose is to boost efficiency, which leads to an increase in growth and scale. A good IIoT solution must be as flexible as it can be, being able to add additional partners, scale to support massive growth, increase asset categories, support a bigger supply chain and even be flexible in terms of business models.
Your specific needs will probably significantly change with growth.
Another important question to ask is what will happen when you scale? Will the system get slower with more and more workstations and items to manage? What about storage of data and access of more and more users to the system?
Scaling, of course, should also be reflected in the cost as well; don’t forget to ask about this. You don’t want there to be any surprises.
8. How friendly is the system? Was it design to work in a manufacturing floor environment?
At the end of the day it’s the use interface and experience that meet the needs of the users (your team). Additionally, the success of your new IIoT solution in bringing the change it has promised depends on the users.
If your team has trouble using the system, expect resentment. Alternatively, if the system is user-friendly and intuitive, expect massive engagement and a checkmark on your way to success.
The user interface should be as fast, intuitive and self-explanatory as it can be, allowing for a fast learning curve by all employees, not only your shining stars. Yes, it should be accessible from different platforms such as PC, tablet and even from mobile devices and wearables (see google glass announcement). The UI view structure should be very flexible (allowing for filtering and sorting, rules, generating complex reports, exporting a large amount of data), so your team can easily manage the vast amount of data generated.
Getting a demo or running a trial are both great ways to evaluate any solution’s UI. Don’t hesitate to also ask for references and talk to other people who actually use the system in production.
9. What groundwork needs to be laid? Does the solution require special hardware?
IIoT systems work with sensors, no news here. Sometimes you may need an to install sensors and additional edge devices or on-prem computers to screen data collected by the sensors.
In other words, some groundwork may need to be laid.
Before deploying an IIoT solution, it is important to understand what prerequisites are being taken care of by the IIoT vendor. Who will handle hardware installation? Who will manage the ongoing logistics and support with the new hardware?
These are important questions to ask in order to understand what the deployment process entails and who’s responsible for what.
10. Where are data centers located? Will there be latency due to distance?
The vendor you are considering must own servers that are located in one or more data centers. You should know where they are (hopefully in a central location) and what measures are taken to shorten latency as much as possible. Do they use a CDN? Which one? If so, for most customers that will suffice. If you are part of those selected few that require data not be taken out of a certain location (due to compliance issues or security restrictions), share this with the vendor – a professional vendor will have relevant answers and will find a suitable solution that will keep you both happy.
Yes, there are a lot of issues to resolve and questions to answer before selecting an IIoT partner to accompany you on your Industry 4.0 journey. In this article we tried to arm you with the right questions to ask and answers to look for.