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Good vibrations: how industrial IoT is helping Emerson make dumb machinery smart

industrial IoT industrial IoT
Photo credit:

Paul Saad

A revolution in industrial IoT will be powered by wireless connectivity, miniaturisation and data analytics, says Emerson's CTO Peter Zornio.

In September 2017, industrial IoT specialist Emerson Automation Solutions launched its Rosemount 928 gas monitor. It’s only a small device. It can be fitted and replaced in minutes without the need for tools.

But for many large corporates and public utilities, this modest piece of kit could change working habits, reduce spending and even save lives.

Here’s why: workers in many outdoor sites face constant danger from exposure to toxic gas. Traditionally, they have tackled this problem by wiring in gas detection systems. But installing them can be hugely expensive. And it’s not always technically possible. In the latter instance, workers have to rely on portable gas monitoring devices.

Emerson’s smart sensor provides a radical alternative. It is wireless, so it can go anywhere. Workers can also set it up before they venture into any sensitive area. And once installed, personnel can check its status from anywhere.

This is a perfect example of how the combination of wireless technology, data gathering, and always-on connectivity is transforming industrial processes.

Industrial IoT is changing the world – and Emerson is at the heart of it. Indeed, the company was recently named “Industrial IoT Company of the Year” by IoT Breakthrough.

According to Peter Zornio, CTO of Emerson Automation Solutions, heavy industry has used sensor technology for many years. What’s changed now is how they are applying it.

“We work with lots of companies in the process industries – gas, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and power generation,” he says. “A lot of them already have sensors in place for controlling their process, but not for monitoring equipment.

“We’re pioneering a lot of new sensor tech around vibration and corrosion. These are brand new areas our customers haven’t seen before. We always believe if you can measure directly with a sensor, that’s best.”

“So being able to pervasively install sensors using wireless networks to track things like equipment health – and using that to maximize uptime and minimize maintenance spend – is a very hot area. I think this is where they see the biggest potential return.”

Happily for Emerson, these companies need a lot of help with all this. And this is not just technical. There’s also a human factor.

“The challenges start with the technology,” says Zornio. “How do I install more sensors? How do I put in a wireless network to collect the data? How do I securely export that data? What’s the software environment that the data are going to be in?

“These were the hot topics of the last two or three years. But now we’re hearing more about the people aspects: how do I get my workforce to use this data and these tools to transform the way they do their work? They’re so used to the way they’ve done things the way they always have without those digital tools.”

Emerson caters for this rising demand with a portfolio of services collectively known as Plantweb. This includes the sensors themselves, analytical software tools, a data infrastructure, and expert services.

Clearly the company does more than just sell physical equipment. The complexity of the market makes it a seller of expertise in industrial IoT as much as hardware. One critical area where it adds value is data security. Sensors generate huge amounts of data, which must be collected and analyzed in order to yield insights that can be turned into efficiencies.

This data is highly sensitive, as Zornio explains. “All customers have big privacy and security concerns. Many of their processes are potentially hazardous, so they want to make sure that when they send data to us or even to their own cloud infrastructure, it’s done securely and can’t be inferred with.”

To address this, Emerson currently works with strategic partners such as Cisco and Microsoft to secure what it calls the ‘first mile’ of data that leaves a plant.

In the future, the company believes rising demand for its industrial IoT expertise could deliver a huge commercial opportunity.

“We’re very excited about a kind of new business model enabled by IoT called the connected service,” he says. “This is where instead of customers running these applications, we do. We collect their data and analyze it and then provide work instructions, so we can provide our domain experts when they don’t have knowledge in-house.”