Finding value in open architecture

Schneider Electric platform looks to “empower the workforce”.

By Bob Vavra, Plant Engineering January 3, 2017

In November, Schneider Electric became the latest major industrial company to roll out a comprehensive Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solution. The company expanded its ecoStruxure product line to "connect intelligent products to market-specific applications and digital services."

The open architecture of the new solution package will, according to company officials, allow for better customized creation of applications and digital services. Prith Banerjee, Schneider Electric’s chief technology officer, responded to questions from Plant Engineering content manager Bob Vavra, and discussed how the company sees IIoT development in 2017:

Plant Engineering: EcoStruxure is designed around Schneider Electric’s four areas of emphasis: buildings, grid, manufacturing and data centers. How are those industries similar, and where are they unique? At the end of the day, it is just all data management, or do the specific applications also matter?

Banerjee: It is about far more than data management. EcoStruxure delivers IIoT at scale to provide asset performance, predictive analytics and application development. It also serves as the foundation for integrated solution development, control, automation and enterprise-level asset and energy performance management. EcoStruxure connects our technology stack from connected products to edge control, and applications, analytics and services.

EcoStruxure works across a variety of hardware and systems, applying an architecture built for the unique challenges of each vertical end market. EcoStruxure further customizes IoT implementation for customers through the delivery of tailored applications and digital services. These can be co-created with our partners, our customers or with the larger developer community.

PE: EcoStruxure also is built in partnership with Microsoft and Intel to provide cloud and edge computing capabilities. Why are cloud computing and edge computing important for manufacturers to understand?

Banerjee: The rapid nature of IIoT places unprecedented demands on latency, reliability and connectivity. Our manufacturing customers require good, reliable performance, but network congestion could become an issue with massive amounts of content and data generated from IIoT applications. At the same time, our traditional control architectures struggle to reliably and efficiently meet the need for real-time access to data and applications.

Edge control enables industrial customers to seamlessly connect, collect, analyze and act on data in real-time. EcoStruxure’s Edge Control layer provides the physical infrastructure and software to design and build the services needed to bring about real-time control that delivers the promise of IIoT.

Vertical specific applications and services can then be delivered via the cloud to enable better analytics and connectivity to the other layers of the technology stack, ensure accessibility anywhere and at any time, while also enabling new business models, like subscription-based services that open up new possibilities for our customers.

PE: Are we beginning to see more adoption of IIoT systems and strategies? What’s been the hold-up so far?

Banerjee: The enrichment of industrial applications by Internet technologies has been a trend for years but has exploded over the last two years as manufacturers have begun to realize the potential of IIoT as a critical interface between their operations and end users.

While IIoT presents endless opportunity to gather more insightful data to promote greater intelligence among machines and plants, reduce downtime and improve maintenance and planning, there are a few hurdles that have prevented widespread adoption. For example, the influx of data from a growing number of devices means plant operators and managers must learn how to harness the data and turn it into actionable insights to change potential operational outcomes. This requires more specialized skill sets and a more empowered workforce to maximize the potential of the technology.

Cybersecurity is also a concern for manufacturers. While there is inherent risk in opening systems to the internet, a sound strategy that includes physical, hardware and software security, training and stringent testing reduces risk to their systems.

PE: One area the Schneider Electric announcement mentions is the scale of IIoT implementation. How do you bring the power of IIoT to small and mid-sized manufacturers?

Banerjee: The beauty of EcoStruxure is its ability to easily scale, up or down, to provide value for any size operation. At its core, the technology provides a reference architecture and backbone to enhance safety, reliability, efficiency, sustainability and connectivity, while connecting products, control and apps and services. Regardless of the size of the enterprise, EcoStruxure enables the power of IIoT by unifying common software and connecting applications under one roof. These somewhat simple changes make a big impact, whether you’re a single plant or a global network.

PE: What’s the most important thing for manufacturers to consider as it relates to IIoT adoption?

Banerjee: Embedding intelligence at the core of every asset within a plant enables those assets to communicate with each other and other levels of the enterprise, providing a better view of what’s happening at the plant and the business to drive tangible business value for plant operators and managers. Manufacturers do not need to completely overhaul their operations at once. If they are strategic about how they apply new technological investments with existing installations, simple upgrades can drive tremendous value. Technology can’t work for you unless employees are trained to use the data to make better operational decisions, which drive better business decisions. A properly trained workforce must be a priority when implementing IIoT.