A New Generation Takes Aim at IoT

With the Raspberry Pi generating new levels of experimentation in plants and enterprises worldwide, we could be on the verge of a new innovative cycle in industry.

Phil Marshall, CEO, Hilscher North America
Phil Marshall, CEO, Hilscher North America

The Internet of Things (IoT) is sparking huge interest and, naturally, all vendors want to get in on the act. One interesting result of this interest in IoT, and a welcome result from my point of view, is all the effort taking place at different levels—from home automation up to the major IT companies that, quite clearly, are leading the way.

In some of the less advanced IoT areas, however, confusion reigns. For example, home automation solutions are riddled with interoperability and security issues. Not many devices can talk to each other. And many devices, such as coffee pots, refrigerators and even cars, are susceptible to being hacked.

Now, if someone were remotely counting the number of cups of coffee I drink, then I would be mildly amused; I might even offer them a job! However, my car is a different issue and I’d be appalled if they gained control while I was at the wheel.

Nevertheless, home automation is doing us a big favor because it’s sparking a lot of hobbyist activity. Many of these home developers (aka “makers”) are professional engineers who like to play in their spare time doing what their jobs won’t allow them to do during the day.

Made for innovators
The question is: How integral are these part-time technology tinkerers to the advancement of IoT? I’m mainly referring, of course, to products like the Raspberry Pi, which launched in the UK in 2012 to a youth market as a fun way of learning to code. It was originally delivered with a few simple sensors and actuators, so it was always, at heart, an embryonic control system.

Today, the Raspberry Pi is rapidly being absorbed into the technology mainstream. It has vastly outstripped its original target market and sold millions of units across the globe. Engineers are using Raspberry Pi to develop or refine work projects, and major technology companies are advertising for recruits with Pi experience. They know that any Pi maker keen enough to push boundaries in their spare time will be a valued employee. With the Raspberry Pi, engineers self-teach; companies recruit talent; new solutions emerge. Everyone wins!

Among my work colleagues are some whose homes—including their windows, HVAC systems and even their kids’ music downloading activities—are all run by Raspberry Pi. And I have no doubt that the same thing is happening elsewhere.

With this kind of experimentation happening in plants and enterprises worldwide, it’s entirely possible that we’re on the cusp of a new innovative cycle—maybe even new startups.

Hilscher recognized this market some time back and has been quietly developing related products. We offer a HAT (Hardware Added on Top) plug-in extension board, called netHAT, that is designed to add connectivity to Raspberry Pi board for the real-time Ethernet networks that run our plants. I bet the originators of Raspberry Pi never imagined that it would be used in the development of microcontrollers for automation or that Industrial IoT might be a target.

We’re also responding by launching an industrialized Raspberry Pi, called the netPI. It doesn’t look much like the original—more like a modern PLC— but it works exactly the same way as a Raspberry Pi. The difference is that, being industrialized, it can withstand the rigors of the manufacturing plant.

Industrial solutions vs. toys
Which brings me to my final point. As remarkable as the Raspberry Pi is, it is not an industrial product. I listened to a webcast recently, during which one questioner asked: If products like the Raspberry Pi are powerful enough to control a plant, why should he bother with an expensive industrial controller. We haven’t heard a question like that since commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) was a buzzword, and I can tell you it hurt.

In response, we developed a “Top 6 Reasons to Use Industrialized Microcontroller Kits” document and surprised ourselves with the powerful arguments created in the process. Of course, the benefits of an industrialized microcontroller vs. a Raspberry Pi include access to all popular fieldbus networks with certified software, extensive built-in security, ruggedized hardware and software, and hardened electronics—in addition to being able to run commercial solutions aimed at industry.

The message is clear: Use low-cost consumer devices like the Raspberry Pi as much as you like for creative tinkering. Indeed, if you are a professional engineer, I encourage you to do so. But don’t rely on them for your industrial applications. It’s unprofessional to think cheap in real-world circumstances where rugged hardware, software and security are a must.

For more information, visit Hilscher North America at www.na.hilscher.com.

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