Manufacturing and the "Internet of Things"

Oct. 1, 2011
The concept of networking every device imaginable to achieve higher levels of automated interaction is driving changes in industrial networking. But is this idea as viable for manufacturing as it is promised to be for the consumer sector?

On the consumer-facing side of the technology business, buzz around the “Internet of Things” has been picking up a lot of juice lately. Witness the explanatory graphic (provided by Cisco) at as evidence of the effort underway in industry around this concept.

At its core, the whole idea of the “Internet of Things” is to literally have everything imaginable connected to a network so that information from all these connected “things” can be stored, transferred, analyzed and acted upon in new and, usually automated, ways via network connections with everything else.

Like most truly game-changing technologies, we’re talking about mixing nine parts awe-inspiring potential with at least one part unsettling creepiness, considering what could be wrought with this fantastic idea if used for the wrong purposes. For now, though, the reality may be somewhat less than awe-inspiring or creepy, but highly beneficial to business nonetheless. And a lot of the groundwork supporting the potential for the Internet of Things is being laid in the manufacturing industries.

Connected production

“There’s been an ‘intranet of things’ in manufacturing for years now,” says Tony Paine, president of Kepware (, a technology company in Yarmouth, Maine that develops communication and interoperability software for the automation industry. Explaining his statement, Paine points to the growing use of preventative and condition-based monitoring that are widely accepted, if not always implemented, by most manufacturers.

This connected approach to maintenance is very similar to the Internet of Things concept of “connecting a range of devices and systems together by putting sensors out in the field and retrofitting older equipment to pull in info and make decisions,” Paine says. “For example, if you have a system that’s supposed to run in a range from x to y, you can put in a temperature sensor to see if it goes out of range before it runs out of spec. Measuring vibrations to detect out of spec operations is another example.”

Taking the idea a step further are manufacturers looking to connecting all these devices for higher-level decision-making by connecting them to manufacturing execution systems (MES) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for multiple plant connectivity from the device to the enterprise level.

“We used to talk about islands of automation,” says Mike Hannah, product development manager, Ethernet & Infrastructure, for Rockwell Automation ( in Milwaukee. “That’s now evolving into a discussion about how does one plant talk to another plant—not just one part of a plant talking to another part. The growth of devices on Ethernet in the manufacturing sector is accelerating rapidly. Part of the reason for this is the desire to have data available across the enterprise.”

As cutting edge as the practices of condition-based monitoring and sensor-to-ERP connectivity may be, they’re not the be-all-end-all that some people see for the “Internet of Things” as it applies to manufacturing.

“This is not just about connecting smart devices, this is about modeling all the things in your manufacturing world so that it’s easy to remix them in new ways to build new applications,” says Russ Fadel, chief executive officer of Thingworx (, a two-year-old company located in Exton, Pa. The company combines the key functionality of real-time data, mashups, search, social media and the semantic web, and applies it to any process that involves people, systems, devices and other real world “things.”

ON THE WEB: Internet of Things Evolves. Read more stories and see video commentary on the Internet of Things from Automation World editors. Visit related_022

To illustrate manufacturing modeling concepts within the Internet of Things, Fadel says to consider what it would be like to have the ability to feed the Google weather forecast into your facility’s energy management application so it can start cooling the building down or heating it up a day in advance.

“That kind of automated, connected response could save you, say, 3 percent on your utility bill,” Fadel says. “The ability to remix people and systems to interact with radical equality—this will be the source of some unexpected innovation. For manufacturers, the Internet of Things is not just about connecting your car to your alarm clock, it’s about creating a competitive advantage.”

Impact on automation technology

At first glance, the Internet of Things concept can appear as yet another vendor attempt to get end users to install more products they may not really need in the hopes of achieving some kind of business acceleration nirvana. In reality, it’s the end users who are driving vendors down this road to adopt an Internet of Things way of thinking.

Historically, vendors tend to design products with complete end use in mind, but then discover later that end users want to do different things with the product than the vendor intended them for and so the products had to be updated or revised for future releases. By approaching product development from an Internet of Things mentality, products will increasingly “be built for unplanned alterations or connections later on,” says Fadel.

Numerous technology factors in place at manufacturing and other industrial sites are driving this change, and two of the most prevalent factors are Ethernet and wireless networks.

“Ethernet is going everywhere and will become the dominant network across manufacturing,” says Scott Killian, director of connectivity at Sixnet (, a provider of network connectivity devices for industrial applications located in Clifton Park, N.Y. He points to Endress + Hauser’s new flowmeters that have an Ethernet port on the instrument as an example of this trend. “It’s easier to do with this with an AC-powered instrument, of course, but I believe we will see more instruments be 802.11 or Ethernet-enabled. Then the need for large control system might not be so prevalent. Because if everything is connected via Ethernet, the data from them can be passed digitally to a computer system that can make decisions at a very high speed,” Killian says.

While Ethernet may rule the network in manufacturing facilities, Killian says cellular networks are becoming equally ubiquitous in utility applications.

“Cellular wasn’t that popular a year and a half ago,” says Killian, “but that’s changed a lot with utilities and water/wastewater, in particular. Cellular technology is enabling users to monitor things that weren’t easily monitored in the past. On the wired side of things, I’ve heard of water districts wanting to run cable networks because Comcast can drop in broadband. So now they want hardened routers so they can run wired or wireless—and this is from guys who just recently were using dial-up 9600-baud modems. But with the access they now have to 3G, they’re getting onboard with what they can do with it. New technologies tend to force the use of better networking technologies.”

Sidebar: Mashups and OEE. If you haven’t yet become familiar with the term “mashup,” Click here to see what it means and how it applies to manufacturing.  

Illustrating how networked connections down to the sensor level are being used across industries, Randy Durick, points to a recent trend he’s been seeing in the process industries. Durick is director of of the Network and Interface Division at Turck (, a sensor and connectivity supplier in Plymouth, Minn. The trend involves the use of a diagnostic power conditioner as a communication and diagnostic interface between Foundation fieldbus segments and a power supply module. “The diagnostic module collects and transmits information to the higher level fieldbus as diagnostic and alarm data. Using this device makes process data visible on the network portal via the Web so that an engineer at a remote location will be able to access the data and make adjustments instantly,” he says.

Durick also mentions a vendor trend around the integration of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology into existing sensor products. “This allows users to obtain manufacturing data more efficiently and economically, because the sensor can log process information to an integrated RFID tag which can then wirelessly transmit stored information to higher level system when activated by a PLC [programmable logic controller],” he says. “In this manner, a user can obtain current and historical information about any device in the system at any time.”

Like cellular technologies at utility sites, wireless connectivity is increasingly finding its way into connected industrial applications on the strength of its inherent diagnostic ability.

“If I go and cut your Ethernet cable, you don’t know there’s a problem until you try to go online. But if I knock out one of your wireless nodes, you’ll get an error message on your computer,” notes Jeff Curtis, senior applications engineer at Banner Engineering (,  a Minneapolis-based supplier of sensors and associated products for industrial and process automation.

That kind of automatic notification is driving product development at Banner, according to Curtis. We’re looking to have it so that “all the devices are linked together on their own network family so that each family can exist in the world without have to co-locate or cross-talk with another system. To help explain what Banner is shooting for with this, Curtis offers the example of the wireless networks used in homes today, where two neighbors can buy identical systems and never cross paths with one another. “The beauty of this is that you can have these networks everywhere collecting data, acquiring it—and have the determinism to make a decision using wireless data without ever being told to do so. So if there is signal loss or power gets cut, the wireless product enables easy tracking of the problem.”

With the industrial side of public sector projects leading the way, Curtis says that wireless is really starting to take flight with industrial automation products. “What was accepted technology five years ago is quickly fading away in the utility sector,” he says. “Gone are the days of the two-wire cell modem and wired networks. Everything seems to be going to wireless, health-checkable networks.”


In January 2012, David Greenfield, the author of this article, was interviewed by WHYY in Phildelphia, PA, about the concept of the "Internet of Things." To hear that radio interview, follow this link:

OCTOBER 2011, The Internet of Things
To read the article, visit 

Banner Engineering (
Kepware (
Rockwell Automation (
Sixnet (
Thingworx (
Turck (

David Greenfield, [email protected], is Media & Events Director of Automation World.

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About the Author

David Greenfield, editor in chief | Editor in Chief

David Greenfield joined Automation World in June 2011. Bringing a wealth of industry knowledge and media experience to his position, David’s contributions can be found in AW’s print and online editions and custom projects. Earlier in his career, David was Editorial Director of Design News at UBM Electronics, and prior to joining UBM, he was Editorial Director of Control Engineering at Reed Business Information, where he also worked on Manufacturing Business Technology as Publisher. 

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