Future-proofing the factory floor: securely and affordably connecting legacy machine tools to the Internet of Things


A collaboration between Pitch-In, start-up Ioetec and the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), which is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult network, is helping manufacturers large and small reap the benefits that IoT can bring to their business operations.

Many people associate the Internet of Things (IoT) with connected domestic devices such as smart lightbulbs, thermostats or personal digital assistants.

Yet the technology has perhaps even greater potential in industry than it does in the home – by making factories more efficient and safer for human operators and creating interconnected supply chains. This is sometimes referred to as ‘Industry 4.0’ – alluding to the fourth industrial revolution.

Driving the adoption of IoT technologies in the manufacturing sector is a central aim of the Pitch-In project.

Barriers to adoption

Newer manufacturing equipment comes pre-equipped with a suite of sensors ready to be connected to a network. But many manufacturers, particularly smaller outfits, struggle to justify the outlay cost of investing in new equipment, are unsure about the technology, or have concerns about data privacy.

“In several sectors, UK manufacturing is built around legacy; we have a lot of skilled craftspeople working on very old equipment and we tend to keep machines alive and running longer. But we need to move those to Industry 4.0” says Harry Burroughes, Theme Lead for Integration, AMRC Integrated Manufacturing Group.

Since 2017, the AMRC has been looking at retrofitting legacy equipment with low-cost sensors for IoT connectivity at Factory 2050 – home to the Integrated Manufacturing Group and a unique digital manufacturing research and demonstrating facility. Yet as with all IoT applications there are challenges and opportunities that come with increased connectivity, data collection and transfer.

“If you talk to any business, or read any survey from the last five years, cybersecurity has always been in the top three concerns and reasons why people aren’t adopting Industry 4.0” says Professor Rab Scott, Head of Digital at the AMRC.

Working in partnership

In late 2019, an opportunity for collaboration emerged between the Integrated Manufacturing Group and security start-up Ioetec, facilitated and funded by Pitch-In. Ioetec is part of a growing IoT ecosystem around Sheffield that Pitch-In has helped to develop .

Ioetec’s CTO Mike Faulks says: “There have been so many recent instances of industry privacy leaks and data leaks, I think companies have finally woken up to the fact that data has value, and if it has value it has to be secured. We have a solution for industry, but we need to be able to prove that and run it in a real life environment where people can see it. That’s a challenge for any start-up to support the required infrastructure.”

Securely sharing data in ecosystems

Ioetec and the AMRC were able to deliver a full demonstrator, located at Factory 2050, as part of a Pitch-In funded project called ‘Secure IoT connectivity for legacy manufacturing devices’. This involved fitting a 1956 Colchester lathe with sensors, running in parallel with Ioetec’s software and hardware solution to securely transfer, gather and analyse output data. Crucially, this was all done at relatively low cost.

Mark Davies, Ioetec’s CEO, explains: “We’re trying to bring in traditional manufacturers who want to try this and know they will have to make that toe-dipping exercise at some point, but they don’t know where to start. We want to foster that environment, so that people can come in and not feel intimidated, and also just to make it easy to understand so it’s not such a scary prospect in digitalising your business.”

IoT demonstrator with sensors

A springboard for engagement

For the AMRC, the Pitch-In project has come at an opportune time of increasing interest in IoT security from industry and academia.

Rab comments: “By having the demonstrator on the shop floor it really shows that we’re not ignoring the issue of cybersecurity, and therefore it allows us to engage at both ends of the technology pipeline: with university groups working on more blue skies research in this area, and also with our AMRC member companies and local manufacturing, where we can point them towards an enterprise-ready technology solution.”

Harry adds: “In terms of Factory 2050 and the demonstrator – which was our first real attempt at cybersecurity – it’s been a real conversation starter. Our members are now looking at funding more research in the area and we’ve secured a large Catapult project off the back of this, so it’s been a real springboard for engagement.”

The project has also produced direct benefit for Ioetec. Ioetec recently won the Digital Catapult/Siemens Network Challenge and are working with Siemens and the AMRC on the next stage, which is to secure and authenticate legacy devices into existing control systems.