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Matthew Greenwood


The Tools You Need to Connect Legacy Machines to Digital Platforms

Falling prices and technological improvements can bring legacy equipment into the digital world

Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2023 - 12:01

Getting the most out of your older capital equipment is a priority for any manufacturer. Luckily, the technology needed to bring legacy equipment into the internet of things (IoT) is readily available.

Let’s take a look at some specific products and technologies businesses can use to bring legacy machines into their digital manufacturing platform.

Smart sensors

One of the principal concerns with legacy machines is the lack of real-time awareness of and insight into their operations. One of the simplest ways to get that equipment to generate those data is to attach sensors to them. Flexible, low-cost IoT-enabled sensors can be attached to the legacy assets to generate data about their performance—speed, vibration, environmental data, and more.

Smart sensors can send the data they collect to on-location servers, edge devices, or the cloud; IoT software can then generate reports from the data, providing operators with information in real time that may have taken days or weeks to generate previously—and too late to fix a problem. A company could use those data to improve shop floor and business functions almost immediately.

The sensors can be as easy to set up as a home automation system. They’re small and can connect wirelessly to existing IT networks. Battery-powered or low-voltage sensors wouldn’t need any wiring. This negates the need for the company to invest in a facility-wide IoT architecture.

Sensor packs expand on the smart sensor concept. They offer advanced data processing and analysis functions, including predictive analytics and, in some cases, even video analytics. A potential drawback to this enhanced functionality, however, is that it would need stronger edge data processing capabilities, which may involve extra expense for upgraded hardware.

Retrofit kits

Let’s assume your company has decided to go with the retrofit option. These low-cost kits, often put together by third-party technology companies, bundle hardware components (including smart sensors) with a software as a service (SaaS) application to manage sensor data. You can find retrofit kits designed for specific equipment, but they often work with a variety of legacy assets.

Like smart sensors, these kits can be easily bolted onto older machinery and connected to the company’s network. There does need to be some work done to find a kit that fits with the legacy equipment, however. The same model of machine may have different features or run a different version of software.

These kits allow for better monitoring of assets and can enable the use of new types of applications that may not otherwise be available to legacy plant operators. And because the kits are integrated by a third-party supplier, they could be scaled with relative ease compared to a customized integration project.

For example, smart controllers could replace analog ones, streaming data for real-time condition monitoring, and improving performance tracking over having an employee check the controller by sight. Those data could also feed into a predictive maintenance framework, giving factory owners advance notice of potential equipment breakdown.

Edge gateways

Another set of technological tools are edge gateways. These devices function as an entry point for data-gathering devices to share information with a digital platform. The use of IoT in industrial settings has grown significantly, making it all that more important—and easier—for businesses to connect their legacy assets to the cloud.

Gateways are versatile instruments that can translate different protocols and create secure connections between equipment, sensors, software, and databases, including legacy machines.

“If a factory has lots of legacy equipment that was developed pre-internet or pre-IoT connectivity and wants to now connect it to the internet, the most common way to address that is through the use of a gateway device,” says Steve Hoffenberg, director of industry analysis, IoT, and embedded technology at VDC Research. “It acts as a kind of intermediary between the different endpoint devices and other elements of a system.” In addition, intelligent gateways can not only create those connections but also monitor them for potential cybersecurity risks.

Gateways are usually single, separate add-on units that can be repositioned, upgraded, and replaced as needed. If they’re small enough, they can be easily positioned in cramped areas. They are capable of providing wide and comprehensive protocol support, which facilitates communication between interfaces that may not normally have the need to exchange data. It’s also possible to deploy gateways that have specific analytical functions. However, it’s not always necessary to select ones with extensive computing power, because much of the analytical load can be done in the cloud.

Video cameras

When it comes to gathering crucial data, video technology is improving by leaps and bounds. Affordable high-resolution cameras can even perform some image analysis within the camera itself before sending the images to the network for further processing and anomaly detection. Anomalies could include temperature fluctuations, equipment malfunctions, spills, power outages, or unauthorized people in restricted areas.

Cloud services

It’s one thing to enable legacy machines to capture the data, and another to take full advantage of them. That’s where a cloud service can be vital to a company’s operations. Storing and processing data in the cloud can be a cost-effective way to harness potential insights from the data being collected, while making analytics and reporting available to company leaders from any location and on any device.

A cloud service takes on increasing importance depending on how much, and what kind of, data are being collected by the sensors, cameras, and gateways. This will require discernment on the part of the factory’s operators in implementing the right plan for capturing and using data. In fact, a common mistake that businesses make is in over-retrofitting, resulting in a flood of new data without adequate resources to maximize their benefit.

“The influx of too much data can create analysis paralysis,” says Trevor Diehl, vice president of research and development at DelmiaWorks, an enterprise resource planning software specialist company. With the right plan in place, a cloud service is instrumental in generating insights and opportunities for efficiency that can come from the data collected from legacy machines on the shop floor.

When it comes to bridging the gap between legacy equipment and the digital factory floor, there are clearly a variety of flexible, affordable, and customizable solutions. “We’re firmly in Industry 4.0 now, so companies should be capturing data at every step of a process and using it to leverage whatever they monitor,” says Dillon Forzese, head of application engineering at Tulip Interfaces.

With the right equipment, even small manufacturing companies can unleash the full potential of their legacy machines. Not only can this extend the productive lifetime of those machines, it can also help harness the data they need to become more efficient, increase productivity, reduce downtime and machine maintenance costs, and accelerate the time needed to get their products to the market.

IoT is everywhere, and companies shouldn’t assume that their legacy equipment automatically leaves them out of the game.

First published Dec. 8, 2022, on engineering.com.


About The Author

Matthew Greenwood’s picture

Matthew Greenwood

Matthew Greenwood is a freelance writer for engineering.com with a background in strategic communications. He writes about technology, manufacturing, and aerospace.