Powering the Industrial Internet of Things

In the race to take advantage of new technologies, the key is wrap and reuse—not rip and replace.

By Ralf Neubert February 29, 2016

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is often presented as a revolution that is changing the face of the industry in a profound manner. However, in reality, it is an evolution that has its origins in technologies and functionalities developed by visionary automation suppliers more than 15 years ago.

Although an evolution, the changes to the industry will be far-reaching. The good news is that end users and machine builders can now leverage their existing investments in technology, smart devices, and people while taking advantage of available new IIoT technologies. Introducing IIoT solutions using a "wrap and reuse" approach, rather than a "rip and replace" approach, will enable greater business control. In addition, this measured approach will drive the evolution toward a smart manufacturing enterprise that is more efficient, safer, and sustainable.

A history of innovation

The IIoT first started with Ethernet use on the plant floor at the sensor level, and the use of IP address technologies as a way to converge information technology (IT) systems with operational technology (OT) systems. Now, employees from the factory floor to the executive suite can access any production information worldwide through a Web browser, enabling fast and informed decisions at all levels.

By embracing open-system architectures and Internet technologies, we can challenge the proprietary networks that have tried to dominate industrial automation at all levels of the manufacturing environment. These proprietary networks complicate the control infrastructure, make it more expensive, and, in a real sense, take away the automation buyer’s right to choose. We can eliminate these proprietary networks in favor of open and universally available Ethernet, TCP/IP, and related technologies. Currently, there are more Ethernet nodes installed daily than any of the proprietary fieldbus networks annually. This broad-based support, together with its use as the media for the information revolution, ensures continual improvements in speed, security, and reliability—attributes that are critical to the industrial environment.

Today, we can link the systems of the manufacturing environment to the people that need access to the information. It’s just that simple, but also very important to the successful operation of a manufacturing enterprise. From the sensor to the CEO, the information-enabling properties provide the right information to the right place at the right time.

Riding the wave of technology generated by the Internet, we can use the inherent and intuitive properties of Web-enabled tools to envision a factory where employees at all levels are empowered to access information from anywhere in the world. Use of this commercially open technology provides a uniform and consistent structure throughout the enterprise.

With thin client architectures supported by embedded and dedicated servers, individuals can create a virtual connection and retrieve information regardless of computer type or operating system. This acceleration of IIoT will fuel the innovation.

Embracing the technology

Next-generation devices will drive the value of IIoT. Today, there are smart devices that are fully online, driving efficiency and productivity within the machines and on the factory floor. For the first time, there are products where the Ethernet has been built into the backbone of the PLC, allowing third parties to develop modules using the standard Ethernet protocol and hardware layer. This also facilitates the IT-OT convergence, making a PLC that is truly ready to play in the IIoT architecture.

Another great example of embedding intelligence in "things" is what we call smart-connected products. The next generation of motors and drives are Ethernet-connected; thus, for the first time, they are able to provide operational insight to plant managers at a device level. Energy-management calculations, diagnostics, pump-curve information, etc., become easier than ever to monitor and act on. As a result, smart-connected products can do a lot of data analysis locally without overloading the higher-level systems, which are either on-premise or in the cloud. Additionally, the integration of dynamic QR codes into drives allow managers to quickly troubleshoot a failed drive and get it back online in the shortest time possible for improved asset performance. For example, by using the cloud and QR code technology to store critical information—such as calibration records—plant managers are able to retrieve them quickly during serious situations. This innovation drives simplicity to reduce repair times. While the value of the QR code changes depending on the status of the drive, if we have a default on the drive, any user with a smartphone or tablet can read the QR code and download information from the Internet to resolve the issue. Having a range of variable speed drives is an innovative concept that can meet any machine-performance requirement.

Modernizing our plant systems through upgrades to these next-generation technologies and devices will allow both OEMs and plant managers to take full advantage of the power of the IIoT.

Smart manufacturing enterprises

By embracing the power of new smart devices, we can begin to realize the future of manufacturing, or the smart manufacturing enterprise. The smart manufacturing enterprise is made up of smart machines, plants, and operations—all of which have higher levels of intelligence embedded at the core. The linked systems are based on open and standard Internet, Ethernet, and cloud-enabled technologies that ensure secure access to devices and information. This allows Big Data to be processed with new, advanced analytics tools and for mobile technologies to drive greater business value. This, in turn, enables improvements to efficiency and profitability, increased cyber security, innovation, and better management of safety performance with reduced carbon dioxide emissions impact.

Because the IIoT is a large and complex concept, it is useful to divide the subject into smaller subtopics. This is useful not only because it makes the subject easier to understand, but also because the topics are moving at different speeds in terms of market availability and maturity of key standards.

With this in mind, we can break the subject into three areas where smart manufacturers will need to excel:

  • Asset-performance management: Deployment of cost-effective wireless sensors, easy cloud connectivity (including wide-area networks, or WAN) and data analytics will improve asset performance. These tools allow data to be easily gathered from the field and converted into actionable information in real time. This will result in better business decisions and forward-looking decision-making processes. The cost-effectiveness of wireless/cloud solutions will result in an acceleration of typical applications, such as condition-based monitoring, preventive maintenance, energy management, etc.
  • Augmented operator: Future employees will use mobile devices, data analytics, augmented reality, and transparent connectivity to increase productivity. As fewer skilled workers are left behind to man core operations due to a rapid increase in baby-boomer retirement, younger replacement plant workers will need information at their fingertips. That information will be delivered in a real-time format that is familiar to them. Thus, the plant evolves to be more user-centric and less machine-centric.
  • Smart-enterprise control: IIoT technologies will enable tight integration of smart-connected machines and smart-connected manufacturing assets with the wider enterprise. This will facilitate more flexible and efficient, hence profitable, manufacturing. Smart-enterprise control can be viewed as a mid- to long-term trend. It is complex to implement and will require the creation of new standards to enable the convergence of IT and OT systems.

The industry of the future is open for every organization regardless of its size and its current business focus. Through simplification, we can make the complexity, created by digitization and the connected world, manageable. To master the key challenges of IIoT, we must integrate the most-diverse standards, systems, devices, and technologies in a smart way.

Ralf Neubert is senior director of innovation and technology for Schneider Electric’s industry business unit.