Lifting in the internet of things

27 December 2016

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In this month’s issue, we have a series of articles looking at drives, controls, and sensors. Two of these articles look in depth at how cranes can make use of ‘smart’ and connected technologies.

We open with a factory report by Sotiris Kanaris, based on his recent visit to ABB’s drive facility in Helsinki. Later in the section, Bernadette Ballantyne looks at how crane manufacturers are responding to the Industry 4.0 concept of smart factories where each device is interconnected.

The focus of Sotiris’s ABB piece is on how the company can help customers optimise cranes to work efficiently with the company’s drives. In his conversation with ABB’s product manager Risto Tiihonen though, Tiihonen explains how drive features facilitate remote diagnostics. Users and technicians can create a diagnostic report with the press of a button, and send it to ABB. Typically, this is done by email with ABB then sending back a fix the same way, but the company can also use screen sharing and services like Skype when needed to work through the issue.

The same remote monitoring technologies that Sotiris describes being used by ABB for producing one-off diagnostic reports, can also be used for routine data acquisition and analysis, both of the crane itself, and the production or distribution chain it is being used in. As sensors and wireless connections get smaller and cheaper, they can be fitted to more and more components: not just the crane itself, but also, for example, the load cell or hook. It’s this ubiquitous connectivity that defines the Industry 4.0 concept, all of the devices in a factory talking to each other and to central systems.

So far, Bernadette finds, the crane industry is developing tools that customers can use in a smart factory, but not seeing overwhelming demand for or application of these tools by customers. It is inevitable that competitive pressures will lead to more widespread demand.

The lifting equipment manufacturers Bernadette spoke to are ready when that demand comes. GH, for example, has developed its load limiter into a fully-fledged data logger, CoreBox, which it now supplies as standard. Street, similarly, offers wifi access to its safe working period monitor. And, automatic hook manufacturer Elebia is in the middle of developing a new hook designed for smart factories with in-built RFID tag tracking.

Other interviewees though warn that, despite the clear benefits, new risks emerge with smart technologies. A few weeks ago, the biggest ever DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack used a weakness in connected doorbells to turn the devices into a vast botnet, bringing down a core web service and dozens of well known sites. Small cheap connected sensors on industrial devices are potentially open to the same misuse.

That sort of attack is incidental to the work a crane (or doorbell) is used for. But, with governments around the world actively supporting industrial espionage, businesses should also consider that while increasing the data they collect, transmit and store might benefit their own understanding of their business, doing this insecurely may also benefit their overseas rivals’ understanding of their business.