Industrial PCs: The Brains of Industry 4.0?

Feb. 17, 2015
As the intelligent system used to make data-based decisions, greater use of industrial PCs is needed to truly achieve a connected factory.

If you’ve been paying attention to the world of industrial automation and its associated press, you cannot help but have noticed that one the hottest themes currently is “connectivity”—Industry 4.0, the Connected Factory, and the Internet of Things.

Most of the excitement here seems to be concentrated on more, smarter sensors and better communication and connectivity. However, there is more to Industry 4.0 than covering every available surface with sensors and connecting everything with miles of Ethernet cabling or wireless networks.

Having a large number of sensors generating countless lines of data is all very well. But this data needs to be put to use. No one will spend money networking a factory unless there is some clear benefit. This means that the data needs to be used to increase efficiency, which means that once data is collected it needs to be analyzed, and the salient points identified. Once this has happened, actions need to be taken based upon the content of the data. Is there a problem? Does something need to be done? Does someone need to be alerted? What changes need to be made? Ideally, these decisions can be made with little or no human input.

Therefore, for a connected factory to be of any use, intelligent systems are needed that are able to make such decisions themselves. These systems will need both the processing power to handle the data, and an open, flexible software platform that can act intelligently based on the data they receive. With their powerful processors and open software, industrial PCs would appear to be ideally suited to meet this need.

In addition to these capabilities, the flexibility of an industrial PC will be a vital factor. Software will need to be carefully customized to meet the needs of each connected factory or plant, to ensure that the right decision is made in a huge variety of possible situations. Flexible systems will also support a wider scope of how a plant is used, allowing manufacturing to switch between different products more easily, to drive greater factory efficiency.

According to a recent study by IHS, the market for industrial PCs is forecast to grow strongly, by more than 8 percent a year to 2018. Although some of this growth will be due to more traditional factors, the journey toward Industry 4.0 will also be important, expanding sales into applications that may not have previously used an industrial PC—applications where previously other forms of control might have been used, but which now need the additional capabilities of an industrial PC to meet the demands of Industry 4.0.

This will help to drive development of both the hardware and software of industrial PCs. In addition to processing and acting upon data intelligently, industrial PCs must be able to present the data in a simple and clear format. It is very easy for operators to become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information a connected factory can generate. It is entirely feasible that an operator could miss an important alert in a sea of numbers, if important information is not presented clearly.

This will be a challenge for software developers because they will need to develop interfaces to display the information that operators need to know in an efficient and ergonomic way, while keeping the interface easy to use for operators used to previous interfaces. However, though the connected factory will greatly increase the amount of information available, an intelligent system should be able to filter it to run a plant or factory, requiring only limited input from operators.

The goal of industrial automation, even from the early days of water wheels and mechanical looms, has always been to replace human workers with more efficient machinery. The logical end goal of lights-out manufacturing is closer than ever. However, to achieve this, factories will require intelligent systems that can respond correctly to potential problems without human involvement. Greater use of industrial PCs just might be the answer to taking the next step toward the future industrial automation.

>> George Dickinson, [email protected], is an analyst in industrial automation for IHS.

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