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The IIoT Pilot Purgatory Conundrum & How to Beat It

By Special Guest
Martin Keenan, Technical Director at Avnet Abacus
November 04, 2020

Manufacturers across the globe are rapidly transitioning to digital manufacturing models, but at least 70% of them become mired in ‘pilot purgatory’, with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) deployments that are field tested and functional, but fail to scale. So how can enterprise escape the pilot purgatory trap?

Although the IIoT has changed significantly in the last few years, with widespread evidence of growing market maturity, there is still much work to be done. Indeed, while many enterprises throughout the value chain have made significant investments in IIoT technology, many manufacturers remain seemingly unable to scale these pilot projects up to full-scale deployments.

According to research from management consultancy McKinsey, digital manufacturing is a top priority for 68 per cent of manufacturing executives, with many of them running pilots, in some cases involving up to eight different technologies. However, only 30 per cent have moved beyond this phase, even after achieving good results from the pilot.

Focus on business value

The biggest stumbling block in scaling IIoT projects is a failure to prove business value at the end of the pilot. The metrics of enterprise value creation are closely tied to the process that led to the selection of the pilot in the first place. The most successful pilot projects tend to spring from a specific stimulus, such as a recent failure starting a wireless predictive maintenance programme. This allows the project managers to prove value - by solving the original problem - and project accurate costs and benefits into that scaling process. However, if a pilot project is based purely around data gathering, for example, then that moment of value delivery is still unrealised. The key is to focus on small wins and validated proof-points, then widening the focus to the big picture.

Build internal skills and capabilities

Enterprise culture is often nailed to the mast as being a major contributor to creating IIoT pilot purgatory, but there are practical approaches to resolve this. McKinsey recommends building communities of practitioners including digital change agents, data scientists, data engineers, and IT architects, as well as “translators” to work in between technical experts and businesspeople. The overall aim is to combine new capabilities with existing ones, rather than switch skill sets out entirely.

The analyst firm exemplifies a global medtech company that has been using the new digital capabilities to enhance its existing lean-management and operational-excellence capabilities, rather than replace them. Cross business unit and cross-functional effort is the key to IIoT success.

Bring IT up to speed fast

While a pilot project shouldn’t need to get universal buy-in before proceeding, it’s important to consider IT functions, especially in terms of their current direction. If the pilot project requires competing technological solutions or incompatible infrastructure that might be insurmountable for even the most valuable solution. Bringing IT along from the outset will ensure there are no unpleasant surprises, as well as potentially generating synergies along the way.

Centralising successful approaches

Every enterprise is different, but all need a strong framework and robust governance, something that can be exploited when piloting Industry 4.0 technologies. Building centralised structures that record and transmit successful working practices and insights through the organisation can have a dramatic effect. These use cases can be easily graded in maturity terms, enabling those that are at the scaling stage to be easily replicated throughout the organisation, while those that are still in development can be treated as such. This approach not only ‘cheerleads’ the best approaches, but also ensures that duplication or confusion is not created when investigating new principles.

Another McKinsey example saw a global company identify priority use cases and invest in a joint effort by practitioners at selected sites and its global centre of excellence (CoE). This allowed them to capture and codify a use-case repository that included detailed how-to guides and tactical training material.

Don’t build it all

Although a robust internal operational and technology knowledge base is essential for any major deployment, there is often a temptation to get carried away with shiny new technologies in a pilot scenario. This can lead to a solution in search of a problem syndrome, but also lead to spiralling costs that soak up all the available resources, leading to an incomplete project that can’t scale (or prove value) without significant additional resource. The key is to use established IIoT solutions and platforms that allow internal experts to focus on solving business and operational problems, rather than resolving technological bugs. Avnet’s own customer feedback led to the creation of Avnet’s IoTConnect Platform, an IoT platform that enables customers to quickly move from data collection to value creation.

Paying attention to emerging IIoT standards will be helpful here, especially if existing partnerships or vendor agreements already point the way - low technological friction is key at the testbed stage. According to CapGemini, more than 50 per cent of organisations say that uncertain standards are a significant challenge to IoT implementation.

Picking the path to scale

Overall, there are as many reasons for the failure of IIoT pilots to scale as there are enterprises running trials, but the high level path to success is to make sure conditions are right from the outset, rather than running interesting micro-projects, then looking to scale right at the end.

The ability to escape pilot purgatory relies on the first decisions influencing the pilot - from picking the most complementary use case through to aligning internal resources to favour the outcome rather than create dispute, as well as choosing the most suitable technology to deliver a positive outcome. Collaboration and partnership is the key to IIoT success, both internally and externally.

About the author: Martin Keenan is the technical director at Avnet Abacus, which assists and informs design engineers in the latest technological challenges, including designing for Industry 4.0 and Industrial IoT manufacturing.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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