Evaluating the simplicity and complexity of IoT solutions

Admittedly, until I read Wayne Brisson’s recent blog, I had never heard of Ockham nor his razor until recently.  Yet strangely, I find real truth in his theory based on our own IIoT journey. Ockham’s Razor” says that with other things being equal, simplicity trumps complexity.   For us, simplicity has come to mean a single managed source for all our monitored IoT Reliability Activities.

Once our Reliability Engineers understood the value that IoT solutions could bring to the plant, the discussions turned to how could we translate “hype” into practical application and we began and continue to explore possible solutions. We were approached by several companies selling what are often called “nanoapps” – applications with a very tight singular focus on a particular type of asset and/or use case.  The allure of these applications are that they appeared to be a quick plug and play solution.   Key here is “appeared to be”.

As we dug into these solutions and discussed all of the alternatives, we came to the conclusion that solutions had 3 attributes:

  1.  “Right” – The best quality solutions for our needs
  2. “Fast” – A ready now solution
  3. “Cheap” – A low cost

These “nanoapps” appeared to meet the “Fast” and the ”Cheap”, but we began to question whether they  were the “Right” solution for scalability… and were they really as “cheap” as we thought?

For us, we had a definite idea of what “right” meant to us:

  1. Transferable – What works in one plant must be able to work in other plants.
  2. Scalable – We have large complex manufacturing lines.
  3. Effective – Must Reduce Maintenance Costs or increase Uptime.
  4. Be part of our Overall Asset Management Strategy, which is to:
    • Communicate with our CMMS – Maximo
    • Add in multiple sources of data
    • Minimize adding parts or complexity to our plants
    • Must be managed and maintained within our Maintenance Business Operation
    • All information must be owned and managed by us!
  5. Meet our Information Technology Security Systems (Eliminate possibility of hacking via an IoT device)
    • This limits outside access to our systems

In reviewing these “nanoapps” for being the “right” Solution, the following issues came up:

  • Access – They use proprietary software and communication protocols – we are denied access.
  • Sensor Redundancy – They require additional proprietary Sensors (even if we already check for vibration, we would need to use their sensors) – we would need to add redundant sensors where we already have sensors.
  • Security – They use “over the Air” and “cellular” connectivity to our machines – this violates our IT Security Protocols.
  • Work Automation – Data results requires someone to review – we are interested in the “Dark Control Room” concept, we do not want to add work.

In reviewing “nanoapps” for being “cheap” we uncovered multiple challenges:

  • Each “nanoapp” requires a separate connection to our CMMS.
    1. In some cases, this had to be repeated per plant.
  • Upon reviewing the Cost for 10 sensors, we needed –
    1. Monitoring Hardware
    2. Gateway hardware
    3. Hardware License
    4. Gateway License

At about the 30 to 40 sensor mark, “nanoapp” costs are no longer “cheap” and we still can’t see the data or take advantage of our existing sensors or other CBM data, like outside oil analysis or additive information such as production data.

We began to see a rising complexity and cost as we contemplated the implementation of these “simple nanoapps”.   We came to the conclusion that while “nanoapps” might have an application if you have a single issue on a couple of machines,  they were not practical for us when looking at a manufacturing line that has more than 10 different equipment locations needing multiple sensors to manage, with multiple use cases.  At my company, I believe Ockham’s theory would say that the simplest path is to eliminate the complexity and manage multiple sources of information from 100’s of assets, perhaps 1000’s of different sensors or PLCs, tied to our CMMS via one platform…. and that is the “right” path for us that we are pursuing.


Nikolaus Despain, CRL is the Director of Maintenance at a large manufacturer. He has over 25 years of experience in Food Manufacturing. During his career he has help various plant positions in Operations, Engineering and Maintenance – including Maintenance Supervisor, Project Engineer, Maintenance Manager, and Plant Manager. He has led several company-wide project teams in evaluating, selecting and implementing various maintenance reliability programs (CMMS, EAM, PM, PdM, TPM, RCA and CBM). In his current role he is responsible for multiple plant Maintenance and Technical Asset Performance. He works with corporate and plants in driving Continuous Improvement projects and an integrated Asset Management program. He is also responsible for all Maintenance, PSM, and RMP activities.

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