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Six Key Questions When Deciding Whether to Buy or Build-In Connectivity For an Industrial IoT Application

According to a 2017 joint study by PwC and the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI), nearly 90 percent of the industrial companies surveyed were exploring Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) strategies, and more than half of those wanted to monetize IoT capabilities by developing value-added customer offerings such as predictive maintenance and equipment-as-a-service. Many firms have moved past the exploration phase already. Companies in fields ranging from industrial laundry equipment (Girbau), to water treatment equipment (Veolia) are currently developing or using IoT applications to collect and analyze data from their equipment to deliver preventive maintenance that helps their customers reduce machine downtime, optimize operating costs and increase profitability.

However, companies just beginning to develop their IIoT infrastructure often discover a complex world of platforms, processes and capabilities. For example, one of the first decisions they have to make is how to add wireless capabilities to their existing equipment. Should they speed up the process for integrating wireless connectivity into their machines by buying an external modem or gateway and integrating it with their equipment? Or should they build a wireless module into their machines that, while taking longer, is less costly in the long run and enables more custom functionality? 

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In either case, there exist a wide variety of powerful IoT connectivity options for industrial companies to choose from. For example, today an increasing number of ruggedized, off-the-shelf gateway solutions are available for IIoT use cases, including for use in heavy equipment. These solutions offer multiple connectivity options including support for cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, providing the flexibility to deploy in environments with or without an existing local network. In addition, manufacturers have a wide range of embedded wireless module portfolios to choose from. While these embedded solutions can differ significantly with respect to security, industrial ruggedness, and ease of integration, there are many embedded solutions well suited to be built into industrial machines for a wide variety of IIoT applications.

When making the decision on whether to buy an external gateway for their machine or build into their machine an embedded wireless module, equipment manufacturers should ask themselves the following six key questions. 

How many machines need to be connected?

Embedded wireless modules will always have a much lower per-unit price than off-the-shelf gateways. However, when embedding wireless modules, the cost of design, development, certification and lifecycle maintenance must be factored in. When dealing with a low number of gateways, the higher per-unit cost may make more sense given the costs required to engineer a custom solution. For example, using an off-the-shelf gateway may be an excellent way to test or ramp-up a new market for an IIoT application, or it might be the best solution if the manufacturer only sells a low volume of a particular machine. Generally, the higher the volume of machines that need to be connected, the more it makes sense to choose to build modules into the machines. However, the break-even point will vary depending on the business case. 

What is the required footprint for the machine?

If a small footprint is a critical success factor, such as for personal tracking devices, wireless modules offer a much smaller footprint. 

How fast do they want to go to market?

Buying an off-the-shelf gateway can accelerate the integration process, resulting in faster time to market for new IIoT applications. In fact, an IoT gateway that is pre-configured and certified with local cellular networks can often be installed in minutes. However, manufacturers should ensure that, in choosing to buy external gateways to speed time to market, they do not miss out on adding key capabilities to their IIoT application that off-the-shelf gateways won’t support, but embedded modules will.

How much do they need to customize data collection, processing and transmission?

Embedded modules provide equipment manufacturers with an opportunity to customize and optimize data collection, processing and transmission that is simply not possible with external gateways. For example, with embedded modules processing functions can be developed that scrub and consolidate data at the edge, so less data is transmitted, and it is faster and easier to analyze this data in the cloud. If the ability to customize the IIoT application is a key consideration, equipment manufacturers should probably choose to build an embedded module into their machine.

Is the equipment already in the field?

When machines are already deployed at customer sites, it is much easier and more cost-effective to retrofit by connecting an off-the-shelf wireless gateway to the equipment than trying to integrate a wireless module for the IIoT application. A single service call can connect sensors to a gateway or modem, so machines can start gathering data and sending it over a wireless network immediately.

How much wireless connectivity flexibility is needed?

A growing number of module vendors offer multiple connectivity protocols – cellular, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth – in modules using the same package footprint, or at least the same form factor. Equipment manufacturers can integrate a module with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity into one machine, a module with just cellular connectivity into another, and a module with all three types of connectivity into a third – all without any major module integration design changes. In this way modules provide manufacturers with more flexibility than gateways, since they can use one design across product lines or regions while still customizing individual systems with only the specific connectivity options that are needed.

By answering these six questions, equipment manufacturers can determine which choice is better for them as they work to integrate wireless connectivity for IIoT applications into their machines. Whatever their decision on this question, equipment manufacturers can look to Sierra Wireless for the comprehensive device to cloud solutions they need to maximize the value of their IIoT application. Sierra Wireless’ portfolio of gateways and embedded modules features the same or similar hardware and software for every product, enabling equipment manufacturers to move from integrating connectivity in one machine to another with minimal rework. Sierra Wireless’s broad portfolio also allows them to easily expand and scale IIoT applications over time -- a design team might start with a gateway to cost-effectively deliver a proof of concept, then migrate to wireless modules when the strategy is deployed and volumes increase. Further, Sierra Wireless’s relationships with network providers around the world, coupled with its Smart SIM and global smart connectivity services, can help companies roll-out their IIoT applications into new regions with different local network service providers and certifications, enabling equipment manufacturers to dramatically simplify expansion and reduce costs.

Whether you are choosing a buy or build strategy, Start with Sierra to work with a partner that has more than 20 years of experience helping industrial companies gather and use data from the field. Sierra Wireless device-to-cloud solutions consist of the strongest and most complete hardware portfolios for the IIoT, along with development environments and cloud device management platforms that make it easy to move quickly from concept to deployment, regardless of the type of application or volume of wireless units. To learn more, read the white paper, Industrial IoT Strategies: Buy or Build? Key Considerations Before Embarking on Your IoT Journey.