Building the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is a complex undertaking. When Hilscher started to create an IIoT strategy, we realized that no single organization would be capable of a total solution. Too much was involved across too many domains. Plus, there is a lot that automation vendors don’t know about IT, while the IT world also knows little about automation—at least for now.
Both sides are coming together slowly, though the culture gap is still wide. But with new technologies like deep learning and artificial intelligence starting to impact automation, it’s the IT suppliers who hold most of the aces.
Large automation vendors have been moving toward cloud-based solutions for some time, of course. But I think their solutions will depend as much on what those big IT vendors are offering as on the decades of controls experience they bring to the party. In other words, a collaborative approach is inevitable.
It’s interesting how, thanks to this collaboration between IT and automation, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) is getting a mid-life kicker. Hilscher’s new marketing partnership with SCADA specialist Inductive Automation and middleware supplier Cirrus Link Solutions demonstrates this. The connection among these companies is a natural one: Hilscher fills the data-gathering role via our Edge Gateways, while Inductive Automation supplies the SCADA functionality. The key, however, is the MQTT middleware supplied by Cirrus Link Solutions—and there’s an interesting backstory.
MQTT is already a de facto standard for IIoT. It’s lean and fast, it works in parallel with standard network protocols, and it’s ideal for Internet connectivity. But it transmits raw data; in other words, there’s no structure or context to enable “meaningful information” to be delivered to the higher-level system. This is an issue that Cirrus Link Solutions is directly addressing.
Arlen Nipper, co-inventor of MQTT and CTO of Cirrus Link Solutions, sees IIoT as a massive opportunity for industry. His middleware now includes an open specification called SparkPlug that adds the missing structure and context to raw data, making the IIoT SCADA task elegantly simple. Inductive Automation notes that, with its Ignition system, anyone can now access any tag by name from anywhere in an enterprise within minutes.
Another example of business collaboration taking place around IIoT comes from the IT majors. With the arrival of cloud strategies and the use of “as-a-service” product delivery (whereby customers use standard modules and pay only for what they need), traditional IT software came under threat. Their response was to adjust their offerings quickly. They spotted the opportunity to dig deep into new working environments, including our manufacturing automation universe.
But they knew they could not do it alone, so collaborative efforts are underway to bring the two worlds together. The prize is a quantum leap in operating efficiencies. Even more exciting are the new opportunities on offer. Take the digital twin concept for example, where a real system is partnered with a virtual copy in the cloud. From engineering through asset management to maintenance and even eventual dismantling, modeling a system in software offers huge potential.
However, creating a digital twin requires comprehensive, reliable device information to be easily accessible. Unfortunately, that level of information is not yet easy to access, and that is preventing faster deployment of the digital twin approach. So permit me, if you will, to mention the Device Information Portal that Hilscher is planning to launch.
The Device Information Portal is a library of device description files and similar data, aggregated automatically using web crawlers and manually through direct upload by the device manufacturers. The portal will support all protocols and manufactured devices. Vendors will have the chance to check, upload and amend the data themselves before it goes live and they will be responsible for its accuracy. We’ll make things easy for them and we’ll make the data available to anyone who has a need. In time, we’d like to include documentation, photographs and just about anything else that might be of value in the IIoT universe.
Major end users we’ve spoken to are eager for us to succeed. Our discussions with fieldbus organizations and device vendors also confirm that the demand is there, as is across-the-board support. Even our competitors want to be involved!
Like so much of IIoT, the Device Information Portal is yet another example of collaboration in action.