Get Your Head in the Cloud

May 9, 2018
The cloud offers many opportunities for industry—from greater data analysis to the creation of intelligent production applications. Connecting to the cloud, however, is not always simple. Fortunately, there are ways to ease the process.

Every day the world is becoming more digital, and the industrial world is no exception. It’s clear that the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Big Data, Industry 4.0, and fog, edge and cloud computing aren’t merely buzzwords—they are quickly becoming the standard mode of operation.

In light of this new and still developing reality for industry, it’s important to realize that every smart device has three core elements in common: a physical component (mechanical or electronic), intelligent components (sensors, processors or control units) and networking components. The interoperability of these elements offers the potential for optimization and further automation.

And because interaction with these devices can be done remotely (i.e., via the cloud), dynamic ad hoc adjustments are possible, thereby allowing production executives to gain a holistic view of not just one plant, but several. The result is user-directed data control, remote operation and continuous optimization.

With this level of interconnectivity, data collection and data allocation become essential elements to contemporary automation success. But beyond enabling the connection, how does the cloud add to the equation?

The key to IIoT

The cloud is more than just a trend-setting data collection point. The very nature of its structure provides a robust backbone to the production chain in connection with physical production systems. It supports product and production databases, analysis platforms for evaluating processes and intelligent production application to automatically control and optimize production machines during operation.

The degree of control over all the information that can now be collected and analyzed with the aid of the cloud means that the data can be enriched with proprietary company data from enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and product lifecycle management (PLM) systems. External data, such as raw material and energy costs, traffic or weather data, can also be integrated into the analysis process.

For industry, the advantage of cloud services with respect to classic, in-house IT lies in higher levels of flexibility, particularly in relation to the scalability of systems. In addition, costs can be saved due to simplified administration because cloud service providers offer standardized basic structures, like hardware, operating systems and networks.

Connecting to the cloud

Currently, connecting to the cloud is a multi-step process. Typically, a programmable logic controller (PLC) connects to a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, which then connects to a historian or archive before ultimately connecting to the cloud. As a result, the classic automation pyramid, using conventional central controllers, is gradually disappearing and giving way to this new normal.

PLCs from Wago, like the PFC 100, have the ability to forego the multi-step connection process by connecting directly with the cloud. Once securely connected, these PLCs can access data from field sensors and equipment. Also, they can connect to existing controllers via industrial fieldbus protocols like Modbus, EtherNet/IP or Profibus.

Security concerns, as always, are of the utmost importance and remain the greatest obstacle to the immediate proliferation of cloud technology. Wago PLCs are equipped with comprehensive security systems consisting of TLS, VPN and a firewall. The onboard firewall will maintain an updated white list for approved connections. With Linux as the base for implementing encrypted technologies via TLS 1.2, an IPsec or OpenVPN connection can be implemented directly from the PLC, allowing the use of encrypted data. All of these systems are consistently being updated to thwart new and future threats. This high level of integrated protection within our PLCs means high security can be maintained.

Additionally, Wago PLCs can communicate via the MQTT protocol—an increasingly popular communication method used by many cloud service providers to connect plant floor devices to the cloud. Using this protocol offers the potential to retrofit connections between the PFC family of controllers to multiple cloud service platforms such as Microsoft’s Azure IoT Suite, Amazon Web Services, IBM Bluemix or the Wago cloud. A simple drop-down tab allows users to choose the cloud service they desire while automatically providing the necessary fields for each given platform. For applications requiring context-rich information, the Sparkplug open standard provides connection to MQTT servers with no configuration required.

Clearly, there are many ways to get your head in the cloud; the difficult part is keeping your feet on the ground during the process. Fortunately, there are easily implemented solutions that allow operators to gain a strong foothold as their familiarity with the IIoT grows.

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