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Infrastructure and Operations

How One Manufacturing Firm Added IoT to Spark Plugs to Prevent Plant Shutdowns

German firm Zeppelin combined IoT sensor data from spark plugs with data science techniques to predict the leading cause of power plant shutdowns before they happen

The power of the internet of things (IoT) in industrial settings is in the ability it affords plant managers and executives to sweat the kind of small stuff that turns into very big problems.

Take the role of an engine spark plug in the overall performance of an industrial power plant. In the context of a complex industrial plant, it seems like a small component to have service technicians checking up on constantly. However, failure in spark plugs is among one of the top contributors to engine shutdowns and, consequently, plant shutdowns.

That is why the systems experts and data scientists at German manufacturing and plant engineering firm Zeppelin keyed in on spark plugs as a part of an overall industrial IoT (IIoT) digitization initiative. With the right kind of IoT sensors, it’s possible to unobtrusively collect data on spark plug performance that could predict failures before they happen.

“The spark plug is among the most strained components of an engine. If it fails, the motor shuts down,” says Andreas Zientek, a systems engineer at the firm. “We wanted to provide our customers with a solution that helps to prevent the imminent failure of a spark plug sometime in advance.”

The Zeppelin team was able to accomplish this by tuning IoT sensors to collect data like exhaust temperature and spark plug voltage from every single spark plug in its combined heat and power plants worldwide. All of that data feeds into an anomaly detection model that Zeppelin built out using Splunk’s Machine Learning ToolKit, which came with preloaded algorithms that helps the firm identify potential machinery faults before they cause failures.

This kind of use case is a huge win in the high-stakes industrial and manufacturing world.

“Equipment outages are incredibly costly on manufacturing floors and out in the field,” says Rene Ahlgrim, data scientist at Zeppelin, explaining that the combination of IoT sensors and number crunching through Splunk helps his team dispatch service technicians more expediently.

Not only does the data let the technician know where to be before a problem occurs, but it also offers enough information in advance to know what to expect and which tools to bring to the job to get the repair finished quickly. It’s been a huge win for Zeppelin, says Ahlgrim, adding that it has “generated immediate business value” for the company.

“We have increased the uptime and life cycle of our equipment, made our customers happier, and reduced costs that impact our bottom line,” Ahlgrim says.

Like any complex enterprise organization, Zeppelin runs numerous lines of business, including manufacturing and servicing construction, mining, and agricultural machinery, running construction logistics, and plant engineering. This is just one of many ways the firm is leveraging IIoT. For example, it has similarly used sensors and Splunk to better manage service on a rental fleet of 25,000 Caterpillar construction machines. But the spark plugs, in particular, offer a good anecdotal glimpse into the transformative changes IoT is making today within industrial enterprises.

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