Driving Operational Excellence in the Aggregates Industry wIth Industrial IOT and LPWAN.
By Albert Behr
The Internet of Things (IoT), and its subset Industrial IoT (IIoT), are massively transforming businesses. IIoT technologies that continuously collect and analyze critical data from equipment, workers and environments, provide companies with invaluable insights into existing operations. This unprecedented level of visibility facilitates intelligent decision-making to enhance production efficiency and improve worker safety while reducing costs and waste.
Amid this industrial paradigm shift, aggregates companies now realize that embracing IIoT is essential to secure and bolster their competitive edge. Aggregates production is asset- and energy-intensive while involving high equipment costs, hazardous environments, and complex, precarious extractive processes. As such, operations are expensive with great potential for waste and negative impacts on the environment and workers. Facing these operational challenges, digital transformation is crucial for this sector.
From remote monitoring and predictive maintenance to vehicle management, worker safety and environmental monitoring, aggregate producers can harness IIoT data to optimize their operations in multiple ways. Here are six.
1. Increase Asset Uptime with Condition Monitoring and Predictive Maintenance
Dewatering pumps, conveyors, crushers, screens and cyclones are just a few examples of critical assets used across aggregates production. Maximizing uptime of these assets is a central mission for companies to avoid inflated costs resulting from production downtime. On top of maintenance and servicing expenses, unplanned downtime can incur significant revenue losses that amount between $30,000 to $50,000 per hour in a typical industrial setting.
Leveraging IIoT sensor, communication and computing technologies, companies can remotely monitor live trends in the operations and health status of their equipment to detect anomalies and anticipate machine breakdowns.
For example, abnormal temperature and vibration patterns of rotating equipment indicate developing problems like unbalance, shaft misalignment, bearing failures and resonance issues. Inspection, reparation and replenishment of spare parts can be scheduled on-demand to prevent failure occurrence and minimize unwanted production delays. Remote monitoring additionally curtails inefficient and dangerous manual inspection on functioning equipment.
2. Improve Fleet Utilization and Management
Quarry activities critically depend on the use of capital-intensive mobile equipment like haulers, excavators and trucks to transport extracted rocks from the working face to crushers.
Near real-time information on emission, fuel consumption and health status of components (tires, hydraulics, brakes, etc.) enables predictive maintenance to avoid costly failures, while revealing useful insights into emission rates and existing bottlenecks. For example, low tire pressure can increase fuel consumption and reduce gas mileage.
Simultaneously, idle times and engine load data helps identify underutilized equipment, enabling companies to make informed decisions on adjusting the size and composition of their fleet, or simply taking one or more off shift. Optimizing fleet utilization saves on fuel, reduces equipment wear and tear and cuts down unnecessary fixed equipment costs.
3. Safeguard Workers’ Health, Safety and Productivity
Aggregates sites present a myriad of prominent dangers to workers – from extreme dust, silica and noise exposure to heat-stress pit wall failures and equipment mishaps.
In this context, IoT wearables can pick up real-time data about workers’ vital metrics like pulse and location, while onsite environmental sensors simultaneously capture information on their work surroundings. Based on this, managers can watch out for signs of worker fatigue, dehydration, and prolonged exposure to harsh conditions.
By encouraging workers to take a recovery break when needed, overexertion can be avoided which in turn, improves productivity and reduces the risk of injuries, accidents and chronic diseases. Likewise, reducing on-site checks and circumventing equipment failures with remote monitoring and predictive maintenance lessens the chance of equipment mishaps.
Capturing data from tilt sensors, landslide gauges and crack meters, IIoT networks additionally monitor the stability and integrity of pit walls. Alerts are then issued when potential collapses are detected to prevent fatal incidents and to ensure worker safety.
4. Control Blasting Impacts
With ground vibration, air overpressure, toxic fumes and dust, the potential impact of blasting on the environment, neighboring residences and animals is significant. Having IIoT sensor networks in place, companies can monitor air quality, along with ground and air vibrations throughout the blast lifecycle to effectively control and mitigate negative consequences.
Specifically, alarms are instantly triggered if the amount of atmospheric particulate matters at neighboring residences surpasses the permissible threshold. What’s more, ongoing analysis of this data allows for improvements in future blast designs to minimize environmental and health impact. Such data will also come in handy for public education and public relations with local governments and citizens.
5. Streamline Energy Usage
Energy consumption accounts for a significant proportion of operational costs in the aggregate sector. IIoT power usage data on plant, process and unit levels render powerful visibility into energy flows and consumption patterns in production. Inefficiencies and waste sources can be diagnosed for proactive responses to streamline power usage.
For example, with pumping being among the most energy-intensive activities, measuring run time and electrical power uptake of pumps allows for early identification of unusual consumption behaviors. Combined with other operational parameters, such behaviors hint at structural issues that require inspection and maintenance to ensure efficient pumping.
6. Enhance Production Planning with Silo Level Monitoring
In the aggregates industry, silos are used for multiple storage and production purposes. Real-time monitoring of the fill level of these silos is vital for effective production planning and inventory management. For example, the level and usage rate of bulk explosive silos can be remotely monitored at a central back office.
Once the silo capacity falls under the limits, ordering and replenishment can be instantly executed. As such, connected silos help avoid any production delays caused by insufficient inputs while eliminating manual tasks.
The Last-Mile Data Communications Challenge
Data is the lifeblood of any IIoT solutions and architecture. However, acquiring and harnessing operational data at brownfield aggregates sites do not come without challenges. Responsible for automating and managing a majority of production tasks, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) are concentrated with ample equipment and process sensor data.
The problem is, many legacy PLCs, especially those with proprietary protocols, are designed for communications within local, closed-loop process only. As a result, they lack the ability to exchange data with external systems and analytics platforms like a cloud for IIoT applications.
Adding up to the communications challenge, many quarries and aggregate sites are located in remote areas with difficult topography and great physical obstructions. Often, PLCs are placed kilometers away from the administration building, making wired connectivity an unfeasible option. Connectivity remains a critical issue even for next-generation PLCs that are equipped with Ethernet capabilities.
An alternative to extracting data from legacy PLCs is retrofitting brownfield systems with IoT wireless sensor networks. However, traditional wireless solutions often fall short when operating in the hostile conditions at geographically dispersed aggregate sites.
Mesh networks are constrained by their limited coverage, weak penetration capability, and complex network setup and management. Similarly, Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite solutions are too expensive and power-hungry for battery-operated sensors. Likewise, many quarries are located at remote areas where cellular connectivity is very unstable or not available at all. To fully harness the power of IIoT, aggregates companies need another versatile field connectivity solution.
|Figure 1: LPWAN feeds massive edge data to a cloud analytics platform and/or on-premise management console for predictive analytics and remote monitoring Image Courtesy: Behr Technologies Inc.|
LPWANs – New IIoT Communications Solution
Designed for low-power IoT sensor networks, low power wide area networks (LPWANs) refer to a family of technologies able to transmit messages over kilometers while maintaining many years of battery life. Operations in the sub-GHz frequency bands and sending small amounts of data at a low rate enable extra-long range and deep penetration capability of these solutions.
With low device and network costs, LPWANs can be deployed at a fraction of capital and operating expenditures of conventional wireless alternatives. On the flip side, these networks are not suitable for millisecond-latency, high-bandwidth data communications like voice and video streaming.
In industrial contexts, LPWANs are a great complement to Industrial Ethernet and other automation-specific protocols. While wired solutions continue to be relevant for time-sensitive process automation and control tasks, LPWANs are a viable option for a much wider spectrum of IIoT use cases powered by battery-operated sensors.
Often, IIoT remote monitoring applications – encompassing those discussed above – only require periodic transmission of small sensor data blocks every few seconds or minutes. At the same time, they impose strict requirements in coverage, power efficiency, scalability, and cost-effectiveness – for which LPWANs are an ideal solution.
Thanks to excellent performance, few newer LPWAN solutions can even help companies combat communications challenges at remote, large-scale brownfield sites by IoT-enabling legacy PLCs.
Specifically, in tandem with an Ethernet switch and a data extraction gateway, the LPWAN transceiver can easily interface with a legacy PLC to derive and reliably transmit relevant field data to the back office – over long distance and across uneven terrain. The same LPWAN communication infrastructure can also be leveraged to cost-effectively connect stand-alone assets, mobile equipment and workers, and environmental sensors, thereby optimizing ROI of your IIoT initiatives.
Digitalization is a requirement for the aggregates sector to optimize operational efficiency and safety and stay at ahead of the competition. In this digital transformation journey, LPWANs offer backbone connectivity for low-power IIoT sensor networks. Nevertheless, it is important to note that not all LPWAN solutions are created equal. To ensure carrier-grade reliability, security and long-term interoperability of their IIoT networks, companies should opt for technologies built on robust and proven industry standards (i.e. ETSI TS 103 357). At the same time, other critical networks criteria like scalability, mobility support, and costs should come under consideration.
Stratus, “The Total Cost of Downtime in Industrial Automation”, retrieved Feb. 19, 2019, from https://www.stratus.com/assets/Infographic-Total-Cost-of-Downtime-Industrial-Automation.pdf
Albert Behr is founder and CEO of Behr Technologies, worldwide licensee of MIOTY – the new commercial standard in LPWAN technology for Industrial IoT. With 30 years of professional experience, Behr has led both the commercialization, financing, and operational execution of some of the world’s most famous technology companies.