As Hilscher North America CEO, I am asked more and more often about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and its impact on communications infrastructure. Will it involve new protocols? Will my existing equipment still work? Should we get on the bandwagon? Could there be another fieldbus war?
Let’s take a look at some facts. First, the IIoT lies above and beyond existing networks. Therefore, all current popular protocols will survive intact and your data will simply be extracted from your systems and carried upwards to be processed. You won’t have to obsolete anything unless you’re using something unusual.
Some new protocols will show up at the higher levels. Several have already been identified by organizations such as the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) in North America and the Industry 4.0 project in Germany. They are generally low-overhead protocols designed to carry small data packets rapidly into the cloud, and they are already well-proven in other areas of industry. Some new technologies are also emerging, such as Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), which is part of IEEE 802.1 and a step toward a universal deterministic industrial Ethernet. Plus, familiar technologies such as OPC UA will likely become key elements in the IIoT solution chain.
But I don’t expect any of these developments to raise the industry’s temperature as much as competing fieldbus protocols did! The reason I don’t think there will be an IIoT “war” is that, unless you are a large company with resources to match, chances are good you’ll use a cloud solution provided by a third party.
That third party might be your preferred control system vendor, who clearly has a vested interest in hanging onto your expanding business needs. Automation suppliers are already providing additional management layers for functions such as predictive maintenance and planning. Currently, these are embedded within your control network, but they will move into the IIoT, where the potential scale of big cloud data is going to push their capabilities beyond anything we would recognize today.
And if it’s not your control system vendor, the third party you connect with for cloud services could be one of the more IT-centric companies that support industry. Some are from traditional markets, such as mainframe support, and deliver proprietary business solutions. Some are more recent arrivals focused on Internet deliverables. Both are evolving into sophisticated suppliers of cloud-based services offering advanced solutions purchased on an as-needed basis by end users.
These two types of suppliers—control vendors and IT providers—are approaching IIoT from different perspectives but with the same end point. Inevitably, they will have different solutions, but that will not be the basis for another protocol war; it’s merely a manifestation of normal competitive pressures and vital for providing customers with choice, as well as driving quality and performance benefits. In other words, the IIoT solutions you use will be largely transparent, especially if infrastructure companies, such as Hilscher, do a good job on your behalf arranging for your data to be easily exchanged with the cloud.
However easy we make it, managing such a potentially disruptive inflection point in the history of automation will still require great care on your side. The long-term impact could be profound. I actually think this disruption will alter the ways our machines interact. I expect the automation pyramid to change from being a vertical structure to a more horizontal one.
By that I mean that our machines, systems, and even production lines and businesses will eventually become so decentralized and yet interconnected that our network architectures will morph into mesh systems. Machines will become autonomous and have far greater flexibility. Some experts are even predicting that IIoT could usher in an era of mass-produced one-offs. And more ambitious scenarios, such as the cyber-physical systems predicted by both the IIC and Platform Industry 4.0, will take us into brand new territory.
Though it’s difficult to imagine everything these future scenarios will involve, we must start now to find out. For companies like Hilscher, the challenge is to find sustainable approaches that tap into the value proposition that IIoT offers. Collaborations with third parties will be required if we are to deliver solutions that match everyone’s needs.
In the coming months, Hilscher will introduce new products and services to make the cloud more accessible to industry. From machine control to predictive maintenance to human-machine-product interaction, the use case will be clear that yes, it’s time to get on the bandwagon.