The industrial world has seen incredible changes over the last few years. Companies are quickly adapting to new and disruptive technologies that are completely changing the manufacturing landscape. The impact of connectivity applied to processes, machinery, and people is shaping the way production is monitored, optimized, and scrutinized.
The ability to access information and act on equipment from any remote location created the need of rethinking how everyday operations are being carried out. Why spend time searching for material when you can have an app that shows the location of any item in real-time? Or why do preventive maintenance when you can predict with high probability the remaining useful life of components? Why spend hours compiling Excel sheets, going back and forth between multiple software packages, to provide an efficiency report when you can automate the task and share the results with everyone inside the organization? The answer is that you do not have to. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is now a reality and is becoming fundamental for all organizations. This is easy to realize when looking at the hype cycle for the IoT world.
An IoT Flexible Solution
The biggest competitive advantage for organizations are reached when IIoT solutions are flexible. Business’ don’t want to introduce software that cannot communicate with other packages, especially when difficult to expand. At LHP Europe, our most important objective is to make life easy for our customers. We integrate easy-to-use, flexible solutions inside the already existing IT infrastructure. In the next paragraphs, we provide an example of what we have done, which can be replicated for any business in the manufacturing industry and extended to several more use cases. In this use case, we have implemented a solution comprised of two packages:
- Health & Safety System
- Dedicated to contact tracing and support in complying to social distancing
- Items tracking
- Localization of materials, semi-finished products, and finished products inside the plant and the warehouse
This customer’s needs were to avoid a complete shutdown of their business in case a COVID-19 contagion occurred, and to keep track of the position of products’ bill of materials inside the plant. While these two needs might look very distant from one another, our purpose is exactly this: to provide a versatile solution, capable of solving several, and different customers’ pains.
The system’s architecture is based on the use of wireless sensor technology, cloud-based web application, and the database. This solution communicates with the on-premises database of the customer, as well as with their ERP. In this way, every department inside the company can communicate through a common tool, for a specific purpose. Every member of the organization can access different functionalities of the solution based on their role:
- Back Office
- Check Customers’ order status and shipping date
- Human resources
- Monitors if people are registering temperature at the beginning of the day
- Set up tags for employees to wear
- Run contact tracing when necessary
- Warehouse and Logistics manager
- Monitor the real-time position of tracked items
- Pair and unpair tags to packages and Customer orders
- Every worker
- Can pair and tag packages once complete
- Top Management
- Access all information and receive automated reports
At the sensors level, data flow starts and signals are exchanged by the devices and recorded in their memory. The next step is to send the information to the gateways, which can connect sensors with a master node. Capable of pre-process, the gateways receive the data and share it with the cloud-based database and front-end application. In parallel, the on-premise database is interrogated to gather information, such as the bill of materials for tracked products and the status of customers’ orders. It is also connected to the master node which sends the data to the cloud side of the solution. The master node oversees the coordination of the information exchange, and prepares the data for the cloud database. The figure below shows the architecture of the system.
As previously mentioned, the system has two purposes: to support social distancing and contact tracing (for COVID-19 contagion limitation), and to track items inside the plant. This solution virtually allows any device to be used to trace the position of assets or contacts between people. In this specific case, the same hardware has been employed for both contact tracing and asset tracking.
The Health & Safety System is thought to support businesses during the pandemic. Each individual receives a tag (a lightweight, small, portable device), which can be clipped to clothing or placed inside of a pocket. If two individuals remain less than 2 meters apart for a certain amount of time, the tags will give off a small vibration/sound. Additionally, a contact is saved in the tags’ memory to record which tags have been in contact, in case of an incident. The timeframe before the alarm is set can be chosen by the organization and customized as needed. The tags are then able to communicate with the gateways, which gather recorded information by the tags, and share it with the cloud database.
- For a better look into our health and safety system, check out this video here!
With our customer, we implemented a process that they found to be non-invasive: tags are stored in a cabinet and at the beginning of the day each individual can pick up his/her own tag, and return them at the end of the workday. The process is flexible, and tags can be left at the desk or even taken home. The battery life of the tag is ~1 year, depending on the chosen timespan to detect a contact. The gathered data is made available from the web application where users can look at plots, receive notifications, or run contact tracing. Privacy is 100% guaranteed, given that all data is anonymous and encrypted before being saved into the database. Contact tracing can only be run by a designated person, whether that is HR personnel or a company doctor. With this tool, if one person records to be positive of the COVID19 virus, the company does not have to shut down! The people at risk can safely be advised to self-quarantine by the authorized person and all other employees can continue business as usual.
Searching for production assets is a time-wasting activity for many organizations. With our solution, it is possible to locate “tagged” items all around the plant with a zone-based approach. Each item is assigned a tag, which has the same shape and functionalities as the one used for the Health & Safety System, and location is assigned based on proximity to the gateways. The accuracy of the localization increases as the number of the latter increases. When an item is searched, the web application shows the zone where the item is located based on which gateway is the nearest to the tag that is tracking the item.
In the use case described here, the tags are placed inside plastic bags and clipped to the containers to be traced. Once the content is needed, either for work, inspection, or shipping, it can be easily located. The search keys are defined according to the customer:
- Order number
- Finished product of reference
In most cases, the warehouse manager only has information about the order number and the finished product. For example, if product X needs to be assembled, the materials X.1, X.2, (etc.) are needed. But, the warehouse manager only has a document with references to the finished product and the customer’s order, not the whole process. By using these two keys to search for materials or semi finished workpieces, it is possible to locate the whole bill of materials needed, taking advantage of the connection to the company’s database.
With this, the time to search for components has been greatly decreased, allowing people to focus on more pressing and smarter tasks!
- Written by: Matteo Giunchedi – Project Manager, LHP Europe