Oh, the Things We Can Do

June 18, 2018
When considering the important anatomy of an Internet of Things system, don’t neglect your focus on the ‘things’ themselves. Then you can worry about the cloud, analytics and dashboards.

A lot has been said about Internet of Things (IoT) topics in both industrial and commercial contexts. You might be getting fatigued by it. However, that’s a bit like picking up a Motor Trend magazine and noticing it tends to have a lot of articles about cars.

Although Industrial IoT (IIoT) is somewhat of a leading-edge solution today, it could be a matter of survival in five years. “Survival” sounds like a strong word, and maybe it is. However, it might be as fundamental to the factory as PLCs and IT are today. According to an IoT source at Cisco, a million IIoT devices will be added per hour across the industrial world in 2019. If that becomes reality, getting familiar with IoT solutions might soon be an ante to play this game.

Let’s look at an overview of the anatomy of an IoT solution from the top down:

  • Cloud. Someone else’s server for rent. Except it is exponentially more of everything. I wrote another blog on this topic, so I’ll leave it at that.
  • Big Data analytics. IBM Watson, Apache Spark, Apache Storm and DataTorrent RTS are examples with varying capabilities. One or more of these might boast of processing billions of events per second and the ability to recover all node outages with zero data loss and no human intervention. This is where some analytics “magic” occurs. Except it isn’t magic; it’s algorithmic—plus a lot of cloud supercomputing power. Think of this as taking the most efficient path to analyzing all data for all events at ludicrous speed and learning more about repeatable problem correlations the more data it gets…things we would not even know to look for. Machine learning and more.
  • Edge solutions. Intended to imply the conceptual “edge of the cloud” and touching the physical site to optimize cloud solutions. Physically, it isn’t at the edge of anything. The edge resides in your facility on a device or multiple devices used as a gateway between your data and the cloud, and possibly for on-premise application functionality complimentary to cloud solutions. Don’t get too hung up on the term edge.
  • Dashboards. Show me the data. It is what it is. You need them. Build good dashboards. That’s all this blog needs to say about that.

I would like to break here for a moment just to point out a divide and potential perception problem. Control system integrators can make the mistake of stopping here in terms of what is needed for IoT solutions. We chuckle and roll our eyes when hearing about the ability to connect and integrate devices into a solution. We’ve been doing that for decades and use a lot of industrial Ethernet these days. We have our data in the controllers. We can grab a communications module or OPC driver and bring whatever we need into our controllers. What’s to know? We have that part covered and now just need to know what to do with it all. Oops.

So let me add:

• Devices. The things that do all the things that help. The foundation for all of this intelligence is a bunch of smarter things. Indeed, the thing about the Internet of Things is that we’d better be good at the things. That is foundational to everything above making a difference. Yes, a lot of those things will be process devices we already have and can access. However, that isn’t where the IoT world resides entirely. Smart manufacturing is about a connected world—not just a connected enterprise, and certainly not just the production floor.

Consider a variety of solutions that might not go back through the PLC. Examples could include:

• Low-cost wireless instrumentation such as temperature, humidity, vibration, positioning, level, etc.
• Long-range truck tracking and supply chain intelligence as well as accountability
• Camera solutions for security, safety zones, elevated equipment or inventory inspections, monitoring process equipment, accountability, and capturing video for better troubleshooting and training
• Soft robotics and other advanced robotic ideas
• Roomba-like skid loaders for automated process area cleanup
• Drones for cameras and other various purposes

The sky is the limit. We’ll need to get to know a number of the countless creative integrated things we can do to provide value in this IoT world and earn our keep. The use cases are growing with respect to creative device development. Then we can focus on the cloud, analytics and our dashboards because we’ll have something to work with.

Michael Bachelor is president at Bachelor Controls Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Bachelor Controls, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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