See the IIoT as a partner for sustainable operations

Cristina De Luca -

February 18, 2022

Today, many industrial assets are not connected, nor is the volume of operational data they generate used intelligently to guide decisions. On the other hand, the industrial sector is being called upon to decarbonize and aim for sustainability of operations, while still meeting the familiar targets of performance, safety, and cost reduction. Would it be possible to reduce or even eliminate this mismatch, i.e. use the untapped potential of industrial assets to make them more sustainable?

What a recent ABB survey revealed is that there is a clear understanding among respondents that business performance and sustainability should go hand in hand, i.e. in the current global scenario, they are inseparable elements. It also highlighted that the vast majority (90%) agree that to achieve the required sustainability goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving natural resources, digitalization is an essential tool.

Many of these digitization solutions are part of what we call the Internet of Industrial Things (IIoT) or the set of sensors, devices, connected applications, and collected data that enable smarter management of the industrial environment, ensuring optimal results both in terms of performance and sustainability. On this foundation, companies can develop integrated business and sustainability strategies consistently, capable of generating lasting and significant returns.

Source: ABB

Digital results

ABB’s survey reported that 50% of respondents said they had started to scale up IIoT initiatives in their operations, while 35% had already implemented IIoT at scale. Those who see themselves as “digitally mature” are significantly more likely to cite the importance of industrial IIoT in helping them meet business and sustainability goals.

IIoT technologies help drive efficiency, productivity, and agility in operations and, as 51% of respondents reported, are also very important to ensure competitiveness. And with customers and shareholders increasingly demanding transparency and accountability from suppliers, visibility and measurably are other benefits that IIoT offers the industrial environment.

Source: ABB

On the scale of drivers for IIoT tool adoption, operational efficiency, productivity, and cost savings are still the main catalysts. However, sustainability goals, such as optimizing energy and other resource consumption, were also highlighted in the survey as important priorities.

While the potential value of the IIoT is clear, there is one challenge still to be overcome: identifying how to create a use case that is evidently feasible, efficient, and profitable from a business perspective. What the study highlights are that to realize the true potential of the IIoT, a holistic approach to infrastructure, platforms, and solutions are needed.

Use cases that deliver lower costs are key to driving IIoT initiatives forward, including in terms of sustainability. Many organizations are reducing the risk of IIoT investments by shifting away from capital expenditure towards operational expenditure based on cloud technologies and subscription models. This approach can simplify implementation, leverage existing infrastructure, increase agility and accelerate time-to-value.

Another important measure is to connect the so-called ghost assets in the physical infrastructure using sensors so that they provide more OT and IT information to corporate systems (ERP, MES, SCADA) and analytical dashboards and thus contribute to better-informed decision-making. It is necessary to be aware, however, of the relevance of the assets being addressed, as not everything that can be measured matters to the business. Also, connecting physical assets can generate transformative insights, but it is critical to have the deep domain knowledge to ensure that these insights translate into better decisions.

More sustainability

Almost all respondents (94%) agree that IIoT makes it easier to make better decisions, raising sustainability levels overall, and 72% said they will increase spending on industrial IIoT somewhat or significantly due to sustainability.

The IIoT technologies highlighted in the survey as most critical to boosting sustainability are advanced analytics tools, cloud computing, and cybersecurity. However, the research found common barriers that somewhat impede the rise of sustainability from Industrial IIoT. The top three are the complexity of use cases, skills shortages, and lack of cybersecurity resources.

Of course, IIoT technologies themselves have their own carbon footprints and are a major source of waste when they reach the end of their useful lives. However, this is also an area with the potential to make significant environmental contributions through technology. For example, a report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) pointed out that virtualization tools and “as-a-service” models can accelerate decarbonization by moving “from atoms to bits” and thus contributing to the smarter use of physical devices.