An Introduction to the iVAC: A Disruptive Remote Monitoring and Control Solution

By: Shawn N Hatton
It was clear to me this morning, as I was going through my daily routine of checking my LinkedIn account, that the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has reached the automation market. It makes sense: we want to be able to analyze, troubleshoot, and understand our remote assets, especially when accessibility is an issue. As a result, all of those trips to the top of Mt. Everest to check tank levels and production now go away. Until now, there hasn’t been a single device that allows you to do this. Even if you are not directly involved in the industry, you’ve probably heard of one of the many buzz words floating around: Web of Things, Internet of Things, Digital Transformation, Industry 4.0, Digital Twin, Machine-to-Enterprise, SCADA in the cloud, Machine-To-Machine, Big Data, etc. The market has seen a variety of physical (and virtual) offerings that are intended to empower customers to take advantage of all the features of a cloud-based supervisory control and data acquisition system. What do we call the edge device that allows us to enter the IIoT space? There is a need for a new name here because it is not clear what “edge gateway” or “edge controller” means. The new name that refers to the physical hardware and technology combination that gets users into the IIoT is: iVAC (interactive/international Visualization And Controls. An iVAC is NOT:
  • A PLC (Programmable Logic Controller)
  • A DCS (Distributed Control System)
  • A DAM (Data Acquisition Module)
  • A PAC (Programmable Automation Controller)
  • A PC (Personal Computer)
  • SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition)
iVACs offer features of every single one of these devices, however, instead of being highly specialized, they are feature-rich with the flexibility to execute a variety of tasks. To break down the new name, here is an explanation:
i = interactive. Most IIOT devices offer a variety of ways of interacting with the various features they provide. Most notably, a free, flow-based, web launched, programming software called “Node-Red” is embedded and installed on these devices so that users can work with a variety of “nodes” (think Function Blocks) to process, analyze, calculate and control the connected components. Node-Red is an open source library that gets better every day as users across the globe add their versions of nodes that they deem necessary. One node that I often use to interact with PLCs is the IIOT-OPC-UA node. Simply put, this allows you to connect and browse to every single tag in a PLC via a single ethernet connection. Pair this with an embedded cellular modem, and Voila! You have SCADA in the cloud.
i = international. The intent of IIOT devices (in my humble opinion) is to allow easy, yet secure access to data from anywhere in the world. The driver for this is the various customers who may be interested in how much water was injected in the ground, how much milk left the dairy, how much wine was sent to the primary fermentation, and so on. IIOT devices that have an embedded cellular modem offer access to this data in a way that is easier and more affordable than ever.
V = Visualization. Most people love their dashboards. What a great feeling it is to be able to glance quickly at a process and understand in a manner of seconds everything that is wrong (or right) about that process. Visualization is what empowers us to see what is flowing inside of the pipe line, what reservoirs exist beneath the surface, how much product is in our tanks, how much product we sent to our customers, and beyond. Visualization is the first step in understanding the data that enables us to improve and optimize our process. Performing routine maintenance on large rotating equipment is costly and unreliable, why not let the cloud analyze your data and tell you that your critical pumps are about to fail.
Optimization = $
C = Control. Say your tank farm is at the top of Mt. Whitney, and you are spending time and money flying a helicopter up there everyday to open your outlet valve so that all of your customers receive their portion of your product every day as expected, and then flying back up there to close it (or staying up there and taking a lunch break, side note: does uber eats service Mt. Whitney?…). Now, I realize this probably isn’t the case for most of you, however put in less extreme terms most of you probably lack infrastructure to a certain extent. An IIOT device gives you the benefit of infrastructure without the price tag. Now, getting a temperature profile of your 500 acre vineyard is easier and more affordable than ever. Or, monitoring level in your remote Water/Oil separation tank and sending text notifications when alarm conditions are met is now best handled by an iVAC.
To qualify as an iVAC the device must share these common features:
  • Embedded IO
  • MQTT-s/HTTP/OPC-UA capable
  • Configurable
  • WiFi connectivity
  • Remote programming
  • Local and Cloud based visualization tools
  • Low power
  • Solar Compliant
  • Can handle extreme operating temperatures
  • Expandable Memory
  • Local processing and data storage capabilities
iVACs are the future of real time automation and analytics, cloud computing, remote troubleshooting, and global visualization!

About the author: Shawn N. Hatton is an Automation Engineer with over 12 years of experience in Electrical, Control, Instrumentation, and Automation. Shawn currently works for an innovative California-based company, Tyrion Integration. Tyrion Integration specializes in machine-to-cloud design and process solutions engineering.