Now that we’ve sorted out fieldbus and launched industrial Ethernet, what’s next? This was a typical question I heard while attending a trade organization event in 2012. At the time, no one could offer an answer. However, in the past few years, use of the Internet by industry has risen dramatically. So, is the Internet of Things (IoT) the answer to what’s next?
IoT remains characterized by much blue-sky thinking. Internet Protocol v6 appears to offer almost limitless monitoring, which leads us to terms like “ubiquitous connectivity,” “systems of systems,” and even the “global digital brain.” Big Data and the Cloud, together with as yet undefined analytical technologies, are key elements of IoT as well.
With all that said, the concept of collecting and using data is not new in automation. Anyone with a SCADA historian package has been doing it for years. Predictive maintenance has been around for decades. Online troubleshooting is the norm today. So what’s new about industrial IoT?
Scale, of course, is one answer. If I can connect every sensor (and more) in my plant to some great storage facility in the sky and have it deliver profound new in- sights into my operations, then my world will certainly be a better place. But just because we can send massive streams of data to the Cloud does not mean we should.
For me, data accumulated in the Cloud should somehow be assimilated and condensed into context before being applied back to our plants. Store the raw data if you must, but surely a pseudo-intelligent agent needs to be at work here, seeking understanding. And distributing that around my plant makes more sense than gathering colossal quantities of bits.
As big industrial groups and organizations working on IoT standards and network trade organizations try to define the needs in advance of specifying solutions for their networks, the reality is that the network will be at the heart of whatever IoT becomes. The networks we use today will not go away, but you can expect upgrades and additions. After all, that’s been happening since day one—drives, safety and energy management being prime examples of applications driving growth.
Given this reality, we are responding already, as evidenced by the latest addition to Hilscher’s netX chip family—the netX 4000. I am really excited by netX 4000 because, rather than just supporting our traditional protocol conversion technologies, it’s a “system-on-a-chip” and that has a direct bearing on IoT and our company’s future.
It has multiple processors and peripherals to run applications using different operating systems as well as supporting popular protocols. Therefore, it opens up rich new opportunities in embedded control. It also addresses the “elephant in the room”—security.
Plant-wide layered security will always be necessary, but netX 4000 will have the capability to deliver hardware-based protection at the exact point of control, and that’s a very tough barrier for intruders to overcome, even if they’ve evaded the other security measures.
netX 4000 security achieves asymmetric protection based on public and private cipher keys, with a hardware crypto-accelerator as a security guarantee. As with many other aspects of IoT, it draws on proven technologies from the commercial world so we confidently expect to meet whatever requirements are eventually made by the network trade organizations. The netX 4000 is intended as a PLC master initially, but slaves have to become smarter and more sophisticated too, so expect to see lower-cost versions in due course.