07 August 2017

Pushing IIoT predictive maintenance forward: two challenges to overcome

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There’s no doubt the Internet of Things (IoT) is moving quickly to the front lines of industrial maintenance reliability and asset management. Communication between machines and human technicians, enabled by wireless technology and connected devices, is fueling a shift from preventative to predictive maintenance. But while the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) groundwork has been laid, and it’s projected to be a $151 billion market by 2020, the revolution is still young.

Gartner’s special report, “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies,” points out that all new trends follow a similar growth pattern, and IIoT is no exception. While there’s a lot of excitement about the potential to apply data-driven algorithms to large data streams from industrial assets, IIoT is heading into the trough of disillusionment. Two major challenges must be overcome to push IIoT predictive maintenance technologies up the slope of enlightenment and spark mainstream adoption and success.

Challenge 1: 
Poor Data Quality
Big data went through its own hype cycle, but is now more firmly grounded in the realization that merely collecting large amounts of data is insufficient to achieve meaningful insights. For IIoT predictive maintenance, the data challenges are twofold. Firstly, it’s difficult to obtain high quality, labeled data from industrial machines to begin with. Secondly, it’s even more challenging to then apply that data to provide human engineers and technicians with relevant and actionable condition-based maintenance insights.

Gathering large volumes of raw, unlabeled data is relatively easy, but when attempting to build learning algorithms for IIoT predictive maintenance platforms, the algorithm is only as good as the quality of data labeling (i.e., assigning each piece of data a useful tag or label that makes it somehow informative and useful). Building databases of high quality, labeled data is a much more technologically challenging and time-consuming endeavor.

Challenge 2:
Fragmented Technologies and Human Operations
Because industrial maintenance software platforms, sensors and operations are currently highly fragmented, it’s a challenge to fuse sensor data (e.g., signals based on vibration, temperature, power consumption, etc.) with actual events or maintenance activities that humans carry out on machines.
Many existing condition-based maintenance solutions, such as vibration analysis via a handheld device, require sampling and diagnostics by human technicians going from machine to machine. These contact-based methods can fall victim to producing biased, one-sided results depending on the location of the sensor and the experience of the technician, and aren’t constantly monitoring and sending alerts in real time. Other non-handheld sensors with “smart” monitoring capabilities require complex integrations, training and retrofitting of old industrial assets.

The challenge is to bridge the gap between human maintenance engineers, sensors and enterprise resource planning and monitoring software. IIoT is helping to change this, but so far in the hype phase, IIoT predictive maintenance solutions have mainly consisted of software to analyze data collected from sensors designed and manufactured by third parties. In many cases, users and implementers of such software solutions don’t control the sensors or the data origins. Therefore, they are very exposed to garbage in, garbage out scenarios where false-positive alerts rule and maintenance teams eventually ignore valuable alerts as they are trained to distrust the outputs of such systems. Industrial machine data will only be as good as its worst sensor and it’s impossible to identify which sensors are good and which are bad if they are not properly controlled, installed, or built in tandem with the software that’s processing the data inputs.

Much of the data quality challenges will be addressed by new, deep learning algorithms that mimic the learning faculties of the human brain and can be used to build more accurate predictive models. These deep learning models will be able to apply insights from previously labeled data to new, unlabeled data so both predictive and prescriptive analyses will become even more accurate over time. It’s only with optimal predictive models that any array of connected hardware devices can provide maximum return on investment (ROI) and benefit for decreasing human errors, reducing downtime and increasing average production.

To overcome the challenge of fragmented technologies and operations, maintenance engineers and technicians will need to start relying on classic signal outputs, such as vibration, temperature, power consumption, etc., as well as new smart sensors, such as deep learning, powered, airborne acoustics. Such sensor inputs will increasingly play a larger role in IIoT predictive maintenance. Engineers and technicians have, of course, always diagnosed machine problems simply by listening to them. However, humans can’t be physically next to every machine at all times during operation and also have a hard time filtering out other noise interference present in harsh industrial environments.

The Future
Today, there’s a rising global demand for industrial automation systems as companies work to optimise operational efficiencies. As industrial manufacturing and production become more automated, there will be an increased need in the future for predictive maintenance technology – both hardware and software – that helps keep equipment running at optimal performance and identifies problems in real time before machine failure interrupts production and causes costly unplanned downtime and replacement of damaged parts.

IIoT and deep learning will play a big role in the advancement of predictive analytics and overcoming these two major challenges of data quality and the gap between humans and machines. IIoT and deep learning also will be critical to help get passed the upcoming phase of disillusionment and create more mainstream adoption of IIoT predictive maintenance solutions.

Akolade's Industrial IoT Summit being held on the 20-22 September in Melbourne, will further examine the current challenges facing Industrial IoT.

Written by: Nicolas Verbeeck

Nicolas was born in Belgium and became an expert in consuming excellent beers, chocolate and waffles. During the winter period you can find him on a hockey pitch and in summer he loves to go for a swim or a surf. In 2013 Nicolas was wondering what the beers, chocolate and waffles would taste like in Australia and never came back. One reason… the weather. Nicolas obtained a masters in International Politics and tries to use this background to produce excellent conferences at Akolade.

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