The advantages of the IIoT

Industrial Internet of Things doesn’t replace, but works together with automation, human-machine interface (HMI), MES, ERP, enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI), and analytics, adding benefits.

By John Clemons April 8, 2021

The fourth industrial revolution has been underway for a while now. People call it digital transformation, Industry 4.0, digitalization, or just smart manufacturing. Regardless of the name, all the new technology coming from this revolution is driving real economic benefits and helping fuel a big boom in manufacturing around the world.

Most manufacturing companies are already undertaking some kind of Industry 4.0 project or are planning to in the very near future. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR), digital twins, digital threads, cloud and edge computing, and a whole lot more are all part of Industry 4.0, but maybe none more so than the IIoT.

For many people, smart manufacturing and the IIoT are just about synonymous. When talking about smart manufacturing, people might immediately start talking about the IIoT. The IIoT has become ubiquitous in the smart manufacturing conversation and is becoming ubiquitous in most smart manufacturing solutions.

Smart advantages of smart manufacturing

One of the IIoT’s biggest advantages is it can form the foundation for a wide range of smart manufacturing solutions. Machine learning (ML), AI, Big Data, analytics, manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP), digital twins, digital threads and many other applications can all be built on, or access, an IIoT foundation.

Another big advantage of the IIoT is it can leverage and extend existing technologies. Machine-to-machine communications, sensors and sensor data, automation, and control systems are IIoT elements that have been around for a very long time. So much so, that some people say the IIoT isn’t that new at all.

The IIoT also ties into information systems such as MES and ERP systems, executing transactions, providing data, driving analytics, and supporting real-time visibility.

In the end, the real advantage of the IIoT is all of the above. It provides a communications platform supporting a wide range of IIoT applications. It leverages and maximizes the existing technology working as a complementary solution, not a competitive solution. It ties into the big information systems that most companies already have in place.

Foundational capabilities: IIoT as middleware

At the foundational level, the IIoT works as a kind of middleware by providing a communications backbone between devices, machines, controllers, databases, information systems and people. The foundational capabilities of the IIoT are used to monitor, manage, and maintain the connected devices and machines. The IIoT also enables the transmission of large amounts of data (such as sensor data) in near-real-time to those systems and applications that need it.

That means the IIoT is the foundational interface or middleware between almost everything at the edge such as sensors, devices, machines, and controllers and all the user-facing applications, such as human-machine interface (HMI), MES, ERP, enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI), and analytics.

Many IIoT platforms and solutions go beyond the interface or middleware foundation and provide some very sophisticated capabilities for data collection, data aggregation, data visualization, and data analyses. Along these same lines, some IIoT platforms also provide and on solutions for alerts and notifications, built-in interfaces to MES and ERP, data publishing capabilities, along with tools for dashboards, analytics and reporting.

One of the newest capabilities some IIoT platforms offer is the ability to publish a wide variety of sensor, device, machine, and controller data, along with its context, to almost any external system for analytical purposes. These capabilities are often application and system independent and often allow for asynchronous, message-based event processing and publishing. All making this an excellent solution to get needed data without continually polling the data looking for changes.

Smart objects with artificial intelligence

Another new capability coming out for some IIoT platforms is smart AI objects. Smart AI objects are used to encapsulate key aspects of the manufacturing and machine operations – recipes, configurations, tooling, and status – building up these smart AI objects into an object-based AI data model. This model then becomes common across the IIoT, using and re-using these smart AI objects wherever the data is needed.

The IIoT allows the smart AI objects to be seen and used anywhere they’re needed. The IIoT uses the smart AI objects to collect, and then preserve, the context of the data from the machines. Since the IIoT and other systems discover and use the smart AI objects, their context can be created or changed anywhere in the IIoT. With this capability, edge-computing solutions become more practical and easier to integrate with the cloud. After all, the data is already encapsulated in the smart AI objects and available through the IIoT.

The IIoT discovers the smart AI objects, and their associated data sets, incorporates their underlying organization model, consumes the underlying data, and provides the smart AI objects, the data model, and the data, to anything or anyone that needs them, all in real time.

Complementary IIoT technologies: HMI, automation, controls, MES

That’s a lot of advantages for the IIoT. More than a few people believe the IIoT can replace HMI, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, automation, controls, MES and maybe even parts of ERP. This isn’t true. The IIoT isn’t intended to replace these systems. It’s not competitive with them; it’s complementary. It leverages the existing technologies, builds on them, and provides synergistic capabilities not possible in any one platform.

One of the reasons IIoT is complementary to these other applications, particularly the information systems, is the overall context. To fully understand and analyze data, and get to the root causes of specific situations, requires a complete understanding of the context of the situation.

While data context is one of the strengths of the IIoT, it doesn’t have the complete context. Whether its order information, customer information, shipping or receiving information, quality information, or even sales information, the IIoT doesn’t have it all. Manufacturers need information systems like MES and ERP to complement the IIoT to provide a complete context to any manufacturing event.

IIoT doesn’t do closed-loop control, MES, ERP

The other reason the IIoT is complementary is it’s not really designed for orchestration and optimization. Despite all its advantages, it doesn’t do everything – MES and ERP are still needed. The same holds true for automation and controls. The IIoT isn’t designed to provide closed-loop control, which is still, and always will be, needed in manufacturing. The IIoT provides data and data context not available anywhere else, allowing automation and controls to perform their tasks better than ever.

Automation and control systems, and the people who design them, can concentrate on higher-level functions such as orchestrating the entire manufacturing process from end to end. They also can further optimizing the process without having to worry about sensors, devices, machines and communications. That’s the ultimate power of the IIoT – making automation and controls that much more powerful. That’s why automation and controls and the IIoT are complementary and not competitive.

The IIoT provides the communications backbone for sensors, devices, machines and industrial controllers. It provides the foundation for all sorts of applications. It leverages and extends existing technology, maximizing the value and the life of the technology.

The IIoT ties into information systems such as MES and ERP. The IIoT supports smart AI objects, providing the smart AI objects, with their model, data, and context to any system that needs it. The IIoT complements information systems like MES and ERP by providing data from the sensors, devices, machines, and controllers and providing the data context. Maybe most importantly, the IIoT complements automation and control systems.

Manufacturing system integration: IIoT, automation, MES, ERP

Even with all the IIoT advantages, manufacturers will have to get beyond the basics with the IIoT to fully realize all the benefits. These advantages are significant and synergistic, providing capabilities not possible by themselves.

Bringing it all together, the IIoT, its capabilities, the information systems and the automation and control systems makes for a very formidable solution. Used correctly, it can make a significant impact and allow manufacturing operations to do things never before possible while providing measurable and tangible benefits to the manufacturing enterprise. That’s the advantage of the IIoT.

John Clemons is a senior consultant with Rockwell Automation and Maverick Technologies. Maverick Technologies is a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

KEYWORDS: Industrial Internet of Things, smart manufacturing 

IIoT technologies can operate as middleware.

Smart objects apply artificial intelligence to manufacturing applications.

Complementary IIoT technologies include HMI, automation, controls, MES.



Are your automation systems getting smarter with integration of Industrial Internet of Things?

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: John Clemons ( is a solutions consultant, LifecycleIQ Services at Rockwell Automation. He has been working in the field of manufacturing IT for more than 30 years.