The value of the IoT for Electric Motors

May 24, 2018

The Internet of Things, with the great amount of data it generates, produces real value, perhaps in ways you would not consider. We always think of smart homes, but industrial environments, and especially electric motors, can be a good example of the true value of the IoT.

Electric motors, an essential tool of industrial life

Electric motors come in all sizes and we all have a lot of electric motors in our homes — in our vacuum cleaners, fridges, freezers, garage door openers. Many toys also have miniature electric motors, like the locomotives in model trains.

Factories are particularly equipped with electric motors, used for all kinds of jobs that can be done with motion: lifting, pressing, pumping, sucking or drying. Electric motors are the workhorses of industry today. They’re also used in areas that are too dusty, dangerous or difficult to reach by human effort. In short, modern industrial life doesn’t exist without the electric motor.

Electric motors are mechanical devices, so it’s no surprise that they go down occasionally. Statistics show a failure rate of 7% per year; on average, an electric motor stops working once every 14 years. This is a result that should not be underestimated: for a factory with a hundred electric motors, that means one motor is down just about every month. One motor going down sometimes means a whole production line going down, which can become very expensive, very quickly; and a motor failure can come with incredibly unfortunate timing, like just before that critical order has to be delivered to your most important customer.

To reduce unexpected downtime, factories employ maintenance crews. Maintenance of electric motors is an important part of their efforts, but it’s also expensive. 

There are several approaches to maintenance, with “preventive maintenance” being the most logical. If you know how long on average an electric motor runs, you can estimate how often to do maintenance. To be on the safe side and avoid complete motor failure, the maintenance most often occurs too early. In these cases, it is not unusual for well-functioning parts that are still in good condition to be replaced — preventively, just to be sure. On the other hand, for some motors, maintenance occurs too late. Finally, preemptive maintenance does not guarantee against a new problem occurring shortly after maintenance took place.

Despite these drawbacks, preventative maintenance is probably better and more cost-effective than the “run-to-failure maintenance” alternative. That approach typically results in motor replacement, because repairing a rundown electric motor on the spot is usually not simple. 

A better maintenance strategy may be condition-based maintenance. Generally, before electric motors go down, they start to show irregularities like noise, imbalance, drag, etc. So, a maintenance specialist goes to every electric motor and “listens” to it with the appropriate tools — much like a doctor with a stethoscope. Depending on the environment this may be an easy job or a difficult and even a dangerous one. And, of course, the doctor cannot be everywhere at once. Here is where the IoT comes in!

Condition-based maintenance: Made stronger with AI and IoT

With the IoT, every electric motor on a factory floor is equipped with one or multiple sensors that are connected (preferably wirelessly) to a control database that continuously collects data about the motors. The control database can use artificial intelligence (AI) to learn normal behavior for every motor and then, after a short period of learning, it can generate immediate alerts when deviations from that normal occur. In other words, the IoT combined with AI not only sees problems coming, it continuously scans for problems.

Keep in mind that this control database doesn’t need to be programmed. It can simply be fed with data and then learns by itself “automatically” what is normal behavior and what are exceptions. When a problem occurs, it sends an immediate alert, which in many cases avoids total motor failure and replacement. This kind of smart alert also allows the treatment to match the problem when it starts to manifest, rather than general maintenance that may be too early, too late or miss the pending failure completely. Depending on the severity of the problem and alert, the motor’s downtime can even be planned to minimize any disruption to operations.

Finally, this kind of sensor-based data collection is far more precise and thorough than anything humans could achieve. A slow deterioration of the quality of any given electric motor will continue undetected by human eyes and ears until a serious problem develops or failure occurs, but the IoT will notice even the smallest shifts in normal performance over a longer period of time.

The true value of the IoT

Today, we waste a lot of resources and money making wrong decisions and/or making decisions too slowly, like replacing an electric motor when it is not the right time as we saw previously. The promise of the IoT is that we can now collect cost-effective data that already exists, but that we never captured. And we can capture this data continuously, and quite effortlessly, in enormous volumes. When it is combined with AI, we can learn from it to make better decisions, faster. And this is exactly where the value of the IoT is today, and will be tomorrow.

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