The common perception of the success or failure of an IIoT project is tightly linked to a relatively narrow set of business metrics that include scalability and long-term adoption. However, many of the softer and less-obvious benefits of a “best practice” IIoT pilot project can be missed in this analysis.
The accepted route to achieving a successful IIoT deployment is to run a series of pilot deployments, testing technologies, data flows and process optimization, before scaling up in earnest. In many cases, the pilot projects that do not go on to scale are left behind or discarded, but there is substantial value hidden within even these ‘failed’ pilots.
Here are some underrecognized benefits of pilots.
1. Opportunities to evolve
While a pilot project is running, there can be a temptation to stick rigidly to the initial business case in order to provide a clear and unequivocal “answer”—both in technological and business
value terms. However, breaking down the reporting into regular updates and internal knowledge dissemination can prove unexpectedly powerful, allowing new business opportunities uncovered during the pilot to be fed back into the wider business goals of the organization. This two-way communication allows IIoT business value to evolve organically, but also to keep the almost infinite enhancements possible with IIoT tied to priorities and project limits as defined by the enterprise.
2. Process assessment
Improving industrial process efficiency and effectiveness is another benefit. The discovery component of a pilot project can help expose legacy processes, digital hangovers and hardware that are running with little oversight. Thoroughly documenting and understanding these elements is vital to gaining maximum process efficiency and (arguably most importantly) visibility. It is also critical to managing security risks, projecting IT requirements and delivering the raw data in the search for efficiency gains.
For example, increased visibility from IIoT pilot project helped optimize some methods in the computer giant Fujitsu’s kaizen program, helping to more quickly identify issues that have good improvement potential, improve insight into causes and remediation, and more rapidly assess the impact of remediation.
As an Industrial Internet Consortium whitepaper points out: “When improving industrial processes, there is a cost associated with the time it takes to implement the change and to validate its value.” IIoT’s ability to remove or reduce this time is a hidden benefit. In short, not only does an IIoT pilot require solid documentation of existing processes, but also a robust reporting and metrics structure, all highly valuable projects in their own right.
3. Identifying time-sinks
While one of the key challenges in creating an IIoT pilot (and also scaling one) is integrating with legacy hardware and software, that process can also have unexpected benefits. In some cases, acquiring data from retrofitted sensors can be so challenging that alternative data acquisition techniques are required, such as combining technologies or refining analytics or modelling software. This enables the most onerous legacy pain points to be avoided entirely in the future or when achieving scale.
4. Tuning up internal communications
While every enterprise would pride itself on the quality and clarity of internal communication channels, the requirement to communicate sometimes complex insights and large volumes of IIoT pilot data will challenge even the best traditional reporting structures. However, the process of establishing pragmatic methods to capture and deliver this data is intensely valuable, enabling other technology or process pilots to benefit from the structures and discoveries already made and cemented in operational practice.
5. Partnering for success
One particularly significant source of value in IIoT pilots are the partnerships that are established in those early development days. Well-chosen partners add value from the start, so establishing or joining one of the many ecosystems should be undertaken with all due diligence.
The hidden value in IIoT pilot projects might vary according to the enterprise and context, as well as the specific business case at the start, but there is a wide variety of value generators too. The result is that almost any structured pilot will deliver at least some of those benefits, as well as opening the door to achieving the bigger goals of an IIoT deployment - hidden value has never been easier to come by...Martin Keenan is the technical director at Avnet Abacus, which assists and informs design engineers in the latest technological challenges, including designing for Industry 4.0 and Industrial IoT manufacturing.