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Retrofitting for the Interconnected Production Floor

Reading Time: 3 Minutes 14.01.2021 Currents & Trends

How to successfully enter into the digital era

Using the retrofitting method, you can turn old machines into components for the Industrial Internet of Things with little effort. External sensors and similar appliances make machine data available for further analyses, for example with the aim of process optimization. As a smart ERP system collects and processes these data, it becomes an integral part of the transformation process.
With the dawn of the digital age in production, new technologies become available which can improve processes, increase productivity and promote innovation. However, many small and mid-sized businesses are still uncertain about the right strategy for implementing intelligent factories.

There are basically two ways that lead to the new era: with the Greenfield approach, you simply purchase machines of the latest generation. However, many cannot afford this.

The Brownfield approach, widely referred to as "retrofitting" in the industry, is quite different: old machines are modernized and adapted so they can be connected to digital systems. This is a clear advantage over the Greenfield approach, which always involves massive investment costs and a lot of training.

How retrofitting works in the industry
The most notable advantage of retrofitting is the step-by-step implementation. It can be applied to anything from the intelligent monitoring of individual machines to the collection of data throughout the whole company for the purpose of developing all new business models. The German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association VDMA has joined forces with the Fraunhofer Society IOSB-INA to develop retrofitting guidelines. The most important steps of these guidelines are:

1. Define measures
Determine what values of a machine or a whole machinery are relevant to your use case. This includes the environmental conditions just as well as vibration and movement data and other process-specific measurands.

2. Use existing data sources or external sensor technology
Depending on its age and configuration level, a machine might already be equipped with the necessary sensors and interfaces like a connection to the Ethernet, or can be retrofitted effortlessly. Get in touch with the manufacturer of your machine to find out. If this is not possible, you will have to use external sensor technology. Providers are currently developing solutions with the aim to combine the low production costs of sensors in the consumer electronics or automotive industry with the high requirements of the industrial sector.

3. Promote digital communication
This involves checking the network infrastructure including the necessary bandwidths and the transformation of sensor data if they are not already available in a format that complies with the Industry 4.0 standard. This is usually done by Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) gateways or industrial PCs (IPC).

4. Configure data analysis, preparation and respective measures
 It's all about using data in a way that allows for the automatic monitoring of machines and detection of failures. In two words: predictive maintenance. To get the most efficiency out of the Brownfield approach, technologies like artificial intelligence or machine learning are applied together with the ERP system as the central data hub and digital backbone.

Retrofitting and smart ERP in practice
proALPHA has set up a proof-of-concept project together with Spelsberg, a manufacturer of plastic cases for the electronics industry, where they developed a solution that allows the machine to communicate directly with the ERP system using a Raspberry Pi mini computer.

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