IIoT Technology Megatrends

March 28, 2023
A conversation with Phil Marshall, CEO of Hilscher North America, highlights the trends worth watching during industry’s digital transformation.

Q: What are one or two specific technologies and/or megatrends that will be shaping and enabling development of the IIoT in 2023 and beyond?

A: The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) requires quality communications, making both message queuing telemetry support (MQTT) and Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA) key technologies. These technologies enable future IIoT developments and allow other technology solutions to work. MQTT is a communications protocol with very low overhead, which makes transferring massive amounts of information into cloud-based systems manageable. OPC UA is a universal way to exchange data between systems, supporting that flexibility on a system-to-system basis.

MQTT and OPC UA must also go hand in hand with security. Cybercriminals will continuously find attack vectors and so to block threats, a collective effort is required. This means that embedded, layered security spanning every link in the communications chain — from the component manufacturer to the end user — is essential. This is where IEC 62443 comes in. With over 30 years of communications experience, Hilscher has long supported security through products such as our netX 90 communications controller.

The netX 90 enables security functions to be embedded into automation products, protects CPU activity with “root of trust” techniques and isolates communications from applications to ensure that neither can be affected by the other. Its successors will be similarly enabled in order to match network security requirements as they evolve. We recently announced that the netX 90 supports Common Industrial Protocol (CIP) Security, an important next step for North American automation vendors.

Q: What are the specific technical benefits these technologies provide that will enable new IIoT application successes, versus what is possible with typical applications today?

A: IIoT is evolving but it has not seen the quantum leap that many predicted. Instead, it has taken a decade to become mainstream because automation users are conservative about change, particularly concerning security. In addition to that hesitation, early IIoT implementations were cumbersome and extremely expensive. These issues led many users, such as small machine builders, to be disinclined with their involvement. Today, powerful IIoT solutions are both far less expensive and far more flexible.

The reality is that automation users have always pushed for better and more effective ways to operate and manage assets. Today, they recognize that they cannot compete unless they start offering IIoT features with their equipment. The latest products on the market today offer plenty of opportunity to deploy cost-effective solutions in innovative ways.

Q: What challenges for automation and control engineers do these technologies address?

A: Now, IIoT spans the entire manufacturing hierarchy. At the highest levels, global interaction of systems allows companies to manage their enterprises better and more effectively across global markets. And at the lowest levels, processing the data from sensors mounted on machines can help manage equipment more efficiently and send this data to where it can most effectively be used — locally or globally.

Gathering sensor-level data via smart IO-Link modules delivers continuous access to machine condition and performance. From a performance perspective, this opens exciting opportunities to improve processes such as enhancing workflows, increasing product quality and boosting manufacturing flexibility. Better monitoring can also uncover potential failure mechanisms that may be addressed before the failures cause downtime. Additionally, the “digital twin” version of a machine becomes a reality, enabling off-line diagnosis, process improvement and system design.

These technologies also allow vendors to monitor their machines from anywhere in the world. This presents new business opportunities because vendors can take greater responsibility for their equipment, wherever it may be. Machine rental, rather than purchase, becomes an option that is paid for on a per-use basis—which is an attractive option as staffing levels decrease and skills and experience are lost. Machine providers can also support continuous quality improvement and online upgrades.

Q: Given that the IIoT is already more than ten years in the making, what is your assessment of the progress and overall impact of the IIoT on industrial automation and smart manufacturing?

A: So far, IIoT has moved forward at a pace that I would expect. But now, I see it accelerating as the possible added value of new solutions become clearer. For a product vendor like us, it offers exciting new opportunities too. Our netX family, especially the netX 90 system on a chip (SoC), has become the foundation of a new range of Hilscher IIoT solutions called netField.

Our 30 years of communications experience plus the security offered by netX allows us to broaden our product range to include a variety of processing solutions that deliver fast results at the point of greatest need. These can be edge or cloud-based solutions and they are suitable for virtually any class of user. Furthermore, all of this can be delivered at a far lower cost than before.

In effect, products like netX and netField are typical of a new generation of IIoT solutions that are less costly, more versatile and easier to deploy. And, these solutions operate without compromising performance or security. Huge IT infrastructure is no longer needed to implement IIoT since solutions can now be tailored to exact needs and budgets. Fewer IT skills are required, existing software can often be reused, and users can focus on what they know best – their own processes – by utilizing solutions that are user-friendly and less expensive than any previous offering.

Q: What are key next steps and/or technologies that will enable more rapid development of IIoT applications?

A: Semiconductor developments will continue to drive IIoT forward as always. Solutions will become better and more secure while added value will continue to grow as users become more and more familiar with the options. It is certain that with the type of scalable and cost-effective IIoT solutions on the market now, users will become smarter in the ways they utilize the features. Innovation will play its usual role and the manufacturing world is likely to find plenty of new opportunities to exploit.

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