Innovation in the Internet of Things

by Jeff Muniz
Caterpillar Global Power Solutions Division

Caterpillar’s work and advancements in the digital space has drawn the attention of industry leaders.

Above: Caterpillar, in partnership with local Cat dealer Altorfer, has installed solar power solutions in Rantoul (pictured) and St. Charles for the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency using the Cat Microgrid technology suite.

Caterpillar was built on innovation. Starting with the track-type tractor more than 90 years ago, the company has remained committed to providing customers with industry-leading products and solutions to build a better world. The history of Caterpillar is all about doing: creating, building, problem solving, innovating, testing, servicing and improving. 

Today’s breakthroughs go beyond machines and engines by including digital offerings. With more than 700,000 connected assets in the world, Caterpillar is helping customers succeed through its Cat® Connect offerings. Customers are using data from their assets and analysis tools from Cat dealers to make well-informed and timely business decisions that can help control costs, improve performance and reduce risk.

Caterpillar’s work and advancements in the digital space has drawn the attention of leaders in this industry. The Illinois Technology Association recognized Caterpillar as one of its winners at the Midwest Internet of Things (IoT) Innovation Awards in November 2018. Caterpillar received the IoT Transformation Award, which recognizes a company from a traditional industry (manufacturing, automotive, healthcare, etc.) that is leveraging the IoT to transform the heart of their business. Terri Lewis, digital product manager for Caterpillar’s electric power business, accepted the award on behalf of the company at a ceremony in Chicago.

“Digital is probably not the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of Caterpillar, but it’s a critical part of our customers’ success and our future growth,” Lewis says. “Caterpillar has been in the digital space well before many of the well-known technology leaders of today were even established.” 

Internet of Things
Before smartphones, tablets and touchscreens, Caterpillar had a vision more than 20 years ago about the possibilities of the Internet of Things. The IoT consists of sensors, actuators and devices that are embedded in physical objects and connected through networks, often wireless, to computing resources. Equally important to the system are the people element and the human decision-making processes present in many applications. 

While the global utilization of IoT is still in its infancy, the combination of these technologies promises to transform nearly every industry by “digitally informationalizing” all physical products and services so that every aspect of their performance can be monitored, controlled and optimized. 

Caterpillar captured its original IoT vision in a series of videos in the early 1990s affectionately known as “Ian in the Boat.” In the most well-known video, Ian is seen remotely troubleshooting a product while on a fishing boat using his bulky laptop and flip cellphone. He is collaborating with co-workers and suppliers from around the world by accessing real-time data from a Cat loader at the customer site. The loader has onboard sensors monitoring the hours of the equipment and oil quality sensors which can indicate an impending failure. Ian proactively works with the customer to avoid unplanned downtime and schedule repairs with no impact to the customer’s production. 

“Reflecting on this vision from the ’90s and seeing what is happening now, the possibilities with digital are even more exciting than we ever imagined,” Lewis says. “Within Caterpillar, we are well down the digital path in many areas of the business to innovate in this space, leveraging our domain expertise, building on what we’ve done, and accelerating in some key critical areas.” 

The Power of Digital
This vision is very much reality today across all Caterpillar segments, including its electric power business, where Lewis and her team focus their work. From power plants in Africa to hospitals in the northeast U.S. and a seafood producer in the Pacific Northwest, each of these customers has come to rely on Cat equipment and its digital services to power their operations.

Lewis, who works out of a Caterpillar office building in Mossville and speaks at IoT and digital seminars globally, says the strategic focus for digital at Caterpillar has been on creating customer value, leveraging information sources on and off the equipment. The value creation is enabled by technology products that connect Caterpillar to its customers and their equipment. 

“Caterpillar has always been close to its customers, particularly with our unmatched global dealer network,” Lewis explains. “With digital, we’re going beyond offering great products, as it’s now more of a solutions business model. We’re getting closer to our customers than ever before as we help turn data into actionable insight that creates additional value when using Cat equipment.” 

These highly technical solutions can be seen in two recently launched Cat Microgrid power generation sites here in Illinois. Caterpillar, in partnership with local Cat dealer Altorfer, has installed solar power solutions in Rantoul and St. Charles for the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency. The sites allow IMEA to diversify its power generation capabilities by together providing an expected 3+ million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. 

The Cat Microgrid technology suite is an innovative lineup of power systems that adds environmentally friendly solar panels, state-of-the-art energy storage, and advanced monitoring and control systems to Caterpillar’s traditional line of power generation equipment, including generator sets, switchgear, uninterruptible power supplies and automatic transfer switches. It is designed to reduce fuel expenses, lower utility bills, decrease emissions, and reduce the total cost of ownership while increasing energy efficiency in even the most challenging environments. Outside of Illinois, Caterpillar offers microgrid solutions across the world, including remote locations in Africa where no power existed before or was too unreliable. 

Operating this complex system is a digital offering called the Cat Master Microgrid Controller (MMC). This controller keeps loads continuously energized with high-quality power at the lowest cost. It manages the flow of power from every source in the system, including the main grid when connected. The Cat MMC determines optimum recharge times for the energy storage systems while managing power during times when solar energy is not available.

“For the electric power industries, the technology needs are different than a discrete connected product you may find at a construction site,” Lewis says. “For electric power applications, most products are connected to the internet, monitored remotely and increasingly controlled remotely. Electric power, by the nature of the business, is one of the most advanced with its technology in adopting smart connected products and the Internet of Things.”

Creating a Digital Hub in Peoria
Beyond Caterpillar, Lewis would like to leverage local digital expertise to further improve the Peoria area. A grassroots effort, the IoT Peoria group was formed in January 2017 and now has more than 500 members. The group typically meets once a month. The focus is on bringing together innovative thinkers to find new ways through IoT to overcome many of the greatest challenges in areas like education, energy, water, health, job creation, food and agriculture, crime, and business.

“There are so many people in the Peoria area who have a passion for using the Internet of Things to confront problems and make our community a better place to live,” Lewis says. Currently the group is focusing on outlining three areas of focus where IoT can have an impact for Peoria: 

  • Focus on initiatives and define a vision for Peoria as a
  • Smart City;
  • Aggressively support Peoria being a pilot city for the 5G network, the latest wireless broadband technology for faster connectivity; and
  • Cultivate tech hubs around core competencies in the Peoria area in autonomous technologies, healthcare, manufacturing and agriculture. 

The group looks forward to building out its strategic vision and working with local governmental and business leaders. “In my 30 years at Caterpillar, I’ve seen how digital has transformed our company,” Lewis explains. “The same thing can happen for Peoria.” iBi