The promise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is clear. Factories, warehouses, remote sites and many other places have data that can be used to improve processes and profits.
But getting that data from the edge of the network where it’s produced to the databases and people who need it can be a challenge. Communication for control as well as monitoring and data acquisition can be even tougher.
Most control systems use protocols and networks proprietary or specific to automation—for example, EtherNet/IP, Modbus, Profibus or OPC. In contrast, computers and mobile devices use standard Ethernet or wireless networks and open protocols and standards like TCP/IP, HTTP/HTTPS and JSON.
Translating data between these systems typically involves expensive middleware: computers, gateways, drivers, parsers, custom software and licenses. When data moves off premises or outside its immediate network, middleware increases and security issues expand.
These are the three main challenges most automation engineers find today with IIoT projects: complexity, security and cost. And the extent of these challenges is seldom clear until after the project is well underway.
Meeting the challenge
As engineers, we’re familiar with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and programmable automation controllers (PACs). Both have been improved over many years. But for the IIoT applications we’re doing now, we need a new approach—a new product that does much more than a PLC or PAC, a product that shrinks the middleware and improves security.
That product has recently appeared. It’s called EPIC—Edge Programmable Industrial Controller. Because an EPIC replaces middleware and reduces the steps required to get data, it reduces complexity, lessens security risks, and decreases the time and expense of installation and maintenance.
The four elements of the acronym—edge, programmable, industrial, controller—help explain why an EPIC is more suited to IIoT projects than a PLC or PAC.
Data acquisition starts at the edge because that’s where data is produced. When we get data directly from the source, we know it’s accurate. So an EPIC sits at the edge, connecting directly to sensors and actuators through its I/O. It also connects to existing PLCs or systems to gather their data and issue commands.
An EPIC device works on the data as well, filtering, labeling, storing, transmitting by exception to reduce volume, and converting values from one protocol to another. This preprocessing makes operations, enterprise and business cloud applications far more efficient.
As the single source of truth for data, an EPIC can securely share data with software and equipment, including control systems, building management systems, databases and cloud services.
At the edge, EPICs provide:
- Integrated hardware and software to perform control, monitoring, data acquisition, operator interface, data processing and analytical functions.
- Computer-like intelligence, speed and standard communication ports.
- Gateway security standards and functions, with an internal firewall to control access to network interfaces.
- Authentication and encryption in all communications and control over user accounts.
- Multiple methods for communicating via standard automation and Internet protocols.
- Protocols for data communications, including device-originated methods like publish/subscribe that reduce security concerns.
- Visualization via a web-based, user-defined human-machine interface (HMI) visible on the EPIC’s integrated touchscreen, computers and mobile devices.
Like a PLC, PAC or PC, an EPIC is programmed for control, but it provides several programming options. You can program control using familiar automation tools like flowcharting or any IEC 61131-3 compliant language, including Function Block Diagram and Ladder Diagram. You can also build custom programs in C/C++, Java or other languages to run on the EPIC’s open-source operating system.
Of course, in some locations, the edge can be a hazardous place. Unlike a PC, however, EPIC devices grew from real-world automation experience and were designed for tough conditions. Industrial-grade components are built for long life. UL hazardous locations approval and ATEX compliance are standard. Wide operating temperature ranges like -20 to 70 °C are common.
At its heart, an EPIC is a real-time industrial controller. Programmed with standard automation tools, an EPIC works just like a PLC or PAC in a control system.
An EPIC’s I/O modules offer options including isolated channels and analog and discrete I/O that accept a variety of signals, typically software-configurable. Because EPICs were designed by control engineers, they include features that simplify commissioning and troubleshooting:
- A built-in touchscreen, usable with fingers, a stylus or gloves.
- Web-based system management to configure I/O and networking on the touchscreen in the field or using a computer or mobile device.
- I/O module specs and wiring diagrams viewable in the field, on the device.
- Spring-clamp terminals and covered wireways that accommodate several wire sizes.
- I/O module LEDs showing module health and discrete channel status.
With their capabilities in data processing and communications, security, visualization and real-time control, EPIC devices can free you to focus on what you want to do: connect legacy systems, get data, transform it into actionable information, visualize it and perform real-time control.
An EPIC device offers a simple, secure, maintainable and cost-effective solution for data communication. If solving your latest IIoT challenge involves complex steps, expensive middleware, or security issues, take a look at an EPIC device.
For more information, visit Opto 22 at www.opto22.com.