As part of its plant ­modernization project, manufacturer USG combined Internet of Things technology  with advanced networking at facilities like this one in East Chicago, Ind., where Senior Director of IT Operations Anson Johnson III (at left) is ­pictured with his colleagues Amanda Gentile, Marty Keane and Chuck Arvia. 

Dec 03 2019

IoT Success Demands the Right Network Infrastructure

Data-gathering sensors and cameras and other IoT devices are only as useful as the network they operate on, businesses find.

Although USG is not a household name, its signature product is inside nearly every American home. The maker of building products invented drywall more than a century ago.

Staying true to its history of innovation, USG has positioned itself at the forefront of advanced manufacturing in recent years by investing in Internet of Things technology, including robots, throughout its manufacturing plants.

Networked sensors embedded in manufacturing equipment provide real-time insights on plant operations, allowing the company to better manage quality control, increase profits and improve safety and efficiency. But to take advantage of IoT, the company first needed to upgrade each plant’s network infrastructure, says Anson Johnson III, USG’s senior director of IT operations.

“We wanted to propel our plants into the future with advanced networking so they could handle the load of all those IoT devices and make our plants more efficient and more automated,” Johnson says. “The ultimate goal is to lower costs, be faster to market and continue the quality that USG is known for.”

Companies in industries such as manufacturing, energy, transportation and retail deploy IoT to collect and analyze real-time data on the performance and state of their equipment so they can improve operational efficiency, perform preventive maintenance and make smarter business decisions.

But to succeed, companies have to build the right IT infrastructure to support IoT, and that includes data center equipment with a scalable network, says Forrester Research Analyst Michele Pelino.


The number of sensors in USG’s largest manufacturing plants.

Source: USG

Modern Manufacturing with IoT

USG, based in Chicago, began ­modernizing its 47 manufacturing plants in North America in 2015. Its IT and engineering teams have upgraded about 10 plants a year with IoT and will complete the project in 2020.

At some plants today, driverless forklifts transport goods throughout the manufacturing process. At others, robotic arms place the finished products on pallets and wrap them, Johnson says.

Networked sensors embedded in manufacturing equipment alert staff if machinery needs maintenance and provide real-time data to help staff measure productivity and improve performance, says Marty Keane, USG’s director of process controls.

“In the past, a lot of data was written down on clipboards on the plant floor, so the ability to pull up a screen or get an email on current production information is an advancement,” he says.

A fast, state-of-the-art network with Wi-Fi throughout serves as the foundation for USG’s advanced manufacturing push. USG’s IT and engineering teams needed to upgrade and merge two historically separate networks at each plant: one network that runs the manufacturing process and another network for email, file servers and other administrative tasks.

“We realized a separate network model was not going to work,” says Chuck Arvia, USG’s senior manager of IT. “With IoT, we would create more useful data, but we couldn’t harvest that data with a separate network model.”

Both previous networks needed significant upgrades. The manufacturing network was limited in scope and only supported the finished goods section of plants, so even though manufacturing equipment had sensors, the company couldn’t tap into the data.

The USG team has standardized on Cisco networking equipment: Catalyst 4500 Series core switches, Catalyst 9300 Series edge switches and Aironet 3800 Series wireless access points. The company also uses APC UPSs for power backup and surge protection, and Pelco IP-based cameras for outdoor security and to oversee the production line.

Each year since 2015, Keane, Arvia and Senior Project Manager Amanda Gentile have juggled 10 modernizations. They constructed networks with redundancy and security built in, with plenty of bandwidth and scalability, Arvia says.

CDW supplied the equipment at each plant, and its engineers performed wireless and LAN surveys, installed fiber-optic cabling and configured and helped install switches. It keeps USG informed on emerging technology so the company can keep pace with technological advances, says Thomas Medina, a CDW network solution architect.

USG is now reaping IoT’s benefits. The company ingests the sensor data into industrial computers and into databases for analysis.

“Our process improvement people can query the data and find efficiencies in the plants, or if they know we are having a problem, they can use historical data to track it down and get to the bottom of it,” Keane says. 

Anson Johnson III
We wanted to propel our plants into the future with advanced networking so they could handle the load of all those IoT devices and make our plants more efficient and more automated.”

Anson Johnson III Senior Director of IT Operations, USG

IoT Keeps Business On the Right Track

Railroad transportation company CSX, which owns 21,000 miles of track in North America, deploys IoT sensors to more accurately predict the maintenance needs of its freight trains and other assets, which results in improved safety and efficiency.

“Our goal is to have zero downtime and become more efficient and safer, and to do that, we need information at our fingertips,” says Asher Lohman, CSX’s senior technical director.

For example, trackside detectors measure bearing temperatures as trains roll by.  Before a railcar’s bearings become a safety risk, back office alerts staff that they need to take action.

“Instead of being reactive, the detectors give us more visibility to be more proactive,” Lohman says.

CSX, based in Jacksonville, Fla., uses a mix of IT infrastructure, including Dell EMC servers and storage and Cisco networking equipment at its primary and secondary data centers.

It also deploys smaller data centers using Dell EMC hardware at the edge when immediate data processing is important.

CSX is preparing to build a train inspection portal along a section of it railroad, for instance.

The portal, which will feature multiple cameras that take images of the top, bottom and sides of rail cars, will collect 7 terabytes of data per train as they zoom by.  Machine learning algorithms will analyze the data on the edge, and if defects are found, the system automatically generates maintenance orders.

“When they reach the next terminal, they can go straight to the repair shop and get it fixed,” Lohman says.

CSX also recently implemented VMware NSX to virtualize its data center networks, which allows the company to add security zones and prioritize traffic to ensure good quality of service, Lohman says. 


Portion of small to medium-sized businesses currently implementing IoT

Source: Forrester, “Global Business Technographics Networks and Telecommunications Survey, 2019”

Boosting a Wide Range of Performance With IoT

In Niskayuna, N.Y., GE Research is taking advantage of IoT technology to improve the performance and prolong the life of its long list of products for diverse industries, which range from jet engines and wind t­urbines to MRI machines.

Through a combination of current and historical data and artificial intelligence, the company can optimize performance to predict when parts will fail and perform preventive maintenance, says Colin Parris, GE Research’s vice president of software and analytics research.

The company uses different data centers for different vertical markets. For example, sensor data from gas turbines used in the energy industry is transmitted to a GE data center in Atlanta for storage and analysis.

Overall, IoT increases reliability, improves productivity and lowers costs for its customers. If GE’s data shows that a specific plane is consuming more fuel than it did eight months ago on the same trip from Dubai to New York City, dust could be affecting performance.

“We power-wash the blades, and then they are more aerodynamic, and on the next flight, it uses less fuel,” Parris says.

Bob Stefko/BizTech Magazine

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