The IIoT Edge: Why is Industrial Sensing Difficult and Expensive?

ARC analysts constantly repeat the mantra that there is a huge difference between the consumer and the industrial IoT (IIoT). Perhaps the best example of this is found at the very edge of the edge in IIoT; at the sensor and in the requirements for providing industrial-grade sensing as part of an IIoT solution.

For providing a temperature measurement in a consumer IoT application, one could start by using sensors embedded in a consumer device such as a wearable or smartphone.  Temperature sensing technology doesn’t change much technologically from the consumer to the industrial space.  What does change is that a smart consumer device is much more than a sensor, and so it provides these kinds of additional services:

  • Support for the sensor itself
  • Signal conditioning
  • Conversion of the sensor measurement to engineering units
  • Application hosting and upgrade support for many apps, not just one
  • Shared data backhaul via the LTE, Bluetooth, or WI-Fi network of the device

In most IIoT applications, the above necessities are going to be provided separately, and each will carry its own cost. The smartphone model is not a good one for industrial sensing, unfortunately. How much additional cost? magnetic_flow_meterIt can be a lot.  A respected consultant for an international oil company estimated that the installed cost of a new process measurement in their downstream plants was about $40,000 in quantities of one.  That represents the very high end of the scale, and your installed cost could be only 5%-10% of that, but driving down the cost of industrial sensing can be very challenging. Here are some of the factors that contribute to such sky-high costs:

  • Process interface – The property you are sensing will require a connection of some type to the industrial process.  A proximity sensor may only require placement in proximity, but many other measurement types require specific (and costly) interfaces to the process like thermowells, or other taps into the process itself.
  • The device – You don’t need just a sensor, you need a device that hosts it and provides signal conditioning, conversion to engineering units, etc. and is environmentally suited for the industrial location.
  • Sensor networks – Sadly, neither sensors nor most measurement devices support IP.  Instead they support one or more industrial sensor network protocols for communication of measurements and diagnostics alike.  And many of these protocols were never designed to support remote operation.
  • Installation – The device and any associated wiring has to be installed professionally and in compliance with industry standards and owner-operator practices.  Fly-by-night installations may be allowable in some other segments, but industry is usually appalled by them because poor installations age quickly into high-maintenance items.
  • Documentation – No job is finished until the documentation is done, and that goes double for installations in industrial settings.  If it’s going to be around for 10 years, then all the existing documentation needs to reflect that.
  • Commissioning – Somebody needs to calibrate the device, put it into service, and assure that it is providing accurate measurement and diagnostic information.
  • Integration – The measurement devices need to be integrated with the IIoT gateway or whatever other service is providing backhaul or analytics, or business process integration.
  • Engineering – All of the above activities will require various types of engineering services.  To the degree that installations are highly repeatable, then the average engineering cost can be reduced with increasing  volume.

The fact that many disciplines are involved in delivering such a solution means that costs will add up.  Expect many industrial sensing installations to cost more than a few smartphones. But happily, most often the most important measurements tend to be already installed and part of OEM equipment and/or the existing automation system.  But integrating these is a topic for a later IIoT post.

Happy sensing.

Reprinted with permission, original blog was posted here

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