An Overnight Sensation After 25 years?

Aug. 7, 2015
Will the speed of the manufacturing business change so dramatically with the advent of the Internet of Things that we will one day soon no longer be able to recognize the business as it operates today?

During a recent seminar, I heard a surprising suggestion: Such will be the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) that most adopters could be put out of business by new arrivals and competitors long before they realize anything’s wrong.

Can this be true in manufacturing automation?

It implies a speed of change that looks unlikely to me. We all know that 4-20 mA is still widely used; that process plants have 30-year lifecycles; that fieldbus is still finding converts, and is still way ahead of industrial Ethernet in market numbers, even after 25 years.

For industrial users, making data available—the key aspect of IoT—is not new. We’ve been doing it for decades. Big Data, however, is characterized by three things: volume, velocity and variety. That means specialist support must be involved, such as for the cloud.

The cloud offers the chance to outsource IT functions, and that factor alone could be disruptive. But in many cases, internal personnel having an intimate knowledge of a business and its operations will still be needed. As I have said before, data scientists who understand how to use the cloud will become valued employees. They are few and far between at the moment, as are network engineers who understand how the cloud can be interfaced with existing IT networks.

Anticipating the need for greater decentralization of control and the accelerating demand for data, Hilscher is preparing to launch a new chip: the netX 4000. It will be different from other netX chips in that it will be an “automation platform” rather than just a communications controller. It has a Cortex-A9 core for user-facing applications, and a Cortex-R7 core for real-time communications and applications. The two cores are isolated for total protection, and additional security functions will be embedded too.

We expect netX 4000 to play a role in the Big Data scenario due to its ability to support an environment focused on decentralized data management—in effect, every network node will have the ability to process algorithms and send data for review, analysis and even remote decision-making.

On a separate issue, blue-sky thinkers believe that IoT will add vertically to the traditional automation pyramid. Data just keeps flowing up into cyberspace to be processed and fed back down. I don’t see this as necessarily true. Sure, this could add incremental value to predictive maintenance and productivity applications, and I recognize that small percentage improvements can lead to big margins. But it’s not what Industrial IoT really promises, is it?

I see a wealth of other possibilities. I believe manufacturing will become much more horizontal. I think our pyramid networks could become mesh systems with complex global interaction between individual machines and systems happening far away from the factory floor. These interactions are, for me, the really exciting value proposition of IIoT.

If that’s true, what will future networks look like? I cannot say for sure except that Hilscher’s innovation will be part of them. However, I am reminded of Industry 4.0, the European initiative that is part of the German High Tech Strategy. The Industry 4.0 concept of cyber-physical systems is a useful pointer to what the future of automation might look like.

So IoT may be disruptive for some. And it offers plenty of scope to those who embrace the fresh opportunities it brings.

Could all this happen so fast that it drives companies out of business? I doubt it, but that’s not an invitation to be complacent, of course!

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