Engineering the Industrial Internet of Things

Nov. 1, 2014
It’s been widely accepted that the Internet of Things will have a tremendous impact on our consumer devices, but we also need to recognize that it will shape the future of our industrial processes and infrastructure as well.

The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) has been spurred by the availability of faster, smaller and more affordable processors, improved battery technology, and an expanded wireless communication infrastructure. The ubiquity of cheap, compact sensors that connect networks of embedded devices with the physical world means that any device can be smart, automated and portable.

Consumer IoT, which has received most of the attention so far, has the potential to change the way we interact with the world around us—from reducing the energy we use to cool or heat our homes with smart HVAC systems to monitoring the number of calories we expend based on measured activity levels. In the development of these consumer products, test and measurement platforms play a key role in evaluating these devices before they reach the market.

Which brings us to the other side of the IoT coin—the Industrial Internet of Things, where control, test and monitoring platforms are the end product, as opposed to smart consumer devices. With billions of distributed sensors collecting data, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will transform how business operates.

For example, advances in machine-to-machine communication will revolutionize factory production through improved process monitoring and automation. The aggregation of data from all stages of the production process will enable faster, smarter decisions that can immediately impact the operation of an entire factory floor, from supply to manufacturing to shipping.

The rapid shift toward intelligent systems presents an enormous challenge for embedded design engineers. Building these complex systems involves not only designing embedded devices to collect data from sensors, but also developing a method for networking these devices and programming sophisticated logic to make real-time decisions based on the collected data. These systems generate massive amounts of data that have to be managed and analyzed to detect macro trends.

The number of embedded engineers in industry cannot grow fast enough to keep pace with the burgeoning demand for connected devices. Meanwhile, in this ultracompetitive environment, companies have to make the most out of limited budgets while minimizing their time to market. To achieve 50 billion connected devices by 2020, as predicted by Cisco, the tools for embedded design and data management must evolve to allow engineers and domain experts to develop systems with smaller teams and in less time.

Embedded system design
The tools for engineering IIoT must enable the rapid design, prototyping and deployment of embedded systems. A platform-based approach, pioneered at the University of California, Berkeley, is a proven methodology for building complex embedded solutions.

According to a recent paper from Morgan Stanley, “The Internet of Things Is Now: Connecting the Real Economy,” industry is expected to move to development platforms either built for or at least optimized for IoT. These platforms will automate much of the development legwork, enabling developers to focus on business value rather than the infrastructure required to integrate IoT.

Consider a traditional approach to designing custom embedded solutions. A number of experts are necessary to implement the digital, analog and mechanical design of the embedded hardware, while also designing the embedded software that brings the system to life. The software design alone requires specialized expertise to develop the real-time OS board-support package, device drivers, APIs, and the application itself.

Additionally, domain experts are needed to specify the requirements for this system. For example, an expert in manufacturing process control must play an integral role in specifying what data is required to make sound process decisions, with the ultimate goal of increasing the efficiency of the manufacturing system. To fully realize IIoT, engineers need better tools to build complex embedded systems with fewer people.

A platform-based approach allows smaller teams to develop more efficiently by providing a cohesive set of tools that simplifies the complexities of system design. In this way, the tool platform works more efficiently so that domain experts can focus on application-level challenges without being overcome by low-level implementation details, such as building a custom board-support package.

With the right platform-based system, designers can separate design challenges by defining platform elements that interact through a clear API, resulting in highly modular designs. This approach makes it possible to replace or upgrade elements with commercial off-the-shelf hardware to decrease development costs. Similarly, designers can reuse these platform elements for future iterations, verification and documentation.

Rapid prototyping
Platform-based design can be used across all stages in the embedded design cycle, from modeling to validation testing. Developing a prototype system is an important part of this process whether to prove the technical feasibility of an idea or to demonstrate business value to potential investors. When designing the types of systems that will fuel IoT, a platform-based approach is particularly effective at enabling rapid prototyping.

In particular, development platforms that give domain experts access to FPGA technology have changed the game for rapidly prototyping designs. Teams can use FPGAs to quickly develop a custom embedded hardware solution, without having to repeat the lengthy fabrication process for custom ASICs every time they modify their design. Since FPGAs are reconfigurable, teams can quickly iterate on their design, whether to fix bugs or add functionality, and modify the FPGA circuit within hours instead of weeks.

An example of a company putting this into practice is Airbus, a world-leading commercial aircraft manufacturer. The company is embracing IoT to revolutionize its manufacturing processes through what it calls the Factory of the Future.

Because aircraft production requires assembly of large heavy equipment, precise alignment, quality assurance and traceability, many of these processes are still manually intensive. The Factory of the Future is a research and technology project aimed at employing emerging technologies to make it possible to address these challenging requirements and increase quality and productivity.

Airbus believes that a platform-based approach is essential to bring the Factory of the Future into reality. Initially, they attempted to solve each problem in isolation, which made communication and code reuse very difficult. To tackle this challenge, a small team of engineers decided to create a hardware and software platform that could scale across the different types of devices with specific algorithms such as vision, filter design and motion planning.

National Instruments enables these designers to rapidly solve the IoT challenge with a tightly integrated hardware and software approach. This approach is centered around LabView, a system design software tool for programming off-the-shelf hardware with built- in processors, FPGAs, and a wide range of I/O modules. Using this platform, smaller teams can develop complex embedded systems that traditionally would have required twice as many people. This cohesive, platform-based approach to embedded system design gives engineers the right tools to efficiently build the Industrial Internet of Things.

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