How the Internet of Things Will Impact Automation

Oct. 31, 2014
The age of centralized control rooms is changing as the Internet of Things takes control software and hardware wherever it needs to be.

A major driver behind the growing interest in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is mobile computing, which is becoming more ubiquitous across industry as mobile devices become more powerful and bring with them the promise of more efficient operations.

Currently, there are four layers in the industrial communications hierarchy—physical, network, transport and application—that are used to transmit information from the device or sensor to the control center in industrial applications. This structure tends to make industrial network management very complicated and expensive, which is why there is so much interest in IIoT. The industrial Internet of Things promises to reduce the network structure to just the physical and application layers, allowing installed devices to send information directly to remote devices whenever they experience a fault.

The reduction in network layers in this scenario is possible not just because of fewer interactions required to relay the communications, but because bandwidth use is also reduced, in turn allowing more devices to be able to be controlled by a single remote engineer.

Once the industrial networking structure is simplified, it’s likely that as processing power increases, control software will be installed directly on the end device, thereby enabling every aspect of the device to be directly configured by a remotely located engineer.

Attaining this IIoT concept involves taking existing automation technologies and adapting them. And the technologies to make this jump already exist. By using HTML5, for example, Advantech’s WebAccess software can be configured by engineers without software programming experience. The software’s widget library, widget builder and drag-and-drop dashboard editor allow users to customize their own dashboard screens to meet their specific needs and enable it to browse and monitor WebAccess tags and statistical data using the Dashboard Viewer on any HTML5-compatible browser.

Having the ability to view information in real time from anywhere, engineers can more easily respond to emergencies and, because the sensors are polled regularly, a history of their responsiveness can be built up using spreadsheets to allow analysis of this data for identification and response to trends as appropriate.

Advantech has been developing products that fit with the IIoT vision for a number of years already, even on the hardware side of its business. Today, IIoT-enabled hardware is based around industrial computers that continuously poll connected hardware to detect faults. These hardware devices then use Ethernet or GPRS to send that data back to a centralized server where it’s received, read and analyzed by engineers.

Advances in Ethernet technology, with gigabit speeds no longer uncommon, are facilitating the use of low-power devices over RJ45 cable using Power over Ethernet (PoE). In addition, more widespread cellular data networks provide the ability to send data from remotely located hardware to be received on smartphones.

But these “edge devices” are only one part of the IIoT hardware framework. Another important part is the sensor network technology that resides in the device itself. One of the most important technologies in this area is the wireless sensor network (WSN)—the next generation of wireless data acquisition solution.

WSN combines the wireless I/O and sensor interface to collect and transmit analog and/or digital signals to the Internet. This wireless technology is based on IEEE 802.15.4 with many protocols, such as ZigBee, 6LoWPAN and WirelessHART. With different types of I/Os and sensors, signals can be measured in every situation.

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