IT for Industry: Rocket Science?

Feb. 15, 2017
Commercial IT technologies are infiltrating the factory floor. Here’s an explanation of some key tools that can increase productivity and reduce downtime with less investment.

In McGregor, Texas, the rumble of rocket engine testing rattles windows miles away. It is there, amid pastures in central Texas, that SpaceX tests the engines that drive cargo ships to the International Space Station as well as the dream of one day settling Mars. Test data fed to LabView software from National Instruments (NI) helps the SpaceX engineering team refine its designs. The team uses off-the-shelf gear, including conventional IT infrastructure, to gather its data, making SpaceX just one example of how consumer and off-the-shelf technologies are being put into service for industry.

“Customers want to have the best of both worlds,” says Jamie Smith, director of embedded systems at NI. “They want to have high levels of accuracy and reliability of data, but they want the low cost and the ease of deployment of off-the-shelf infrastructure that you get from commercial IT systems.”

SpaceX tests rocket engines in McGregor, Texas.

That’s why the same infrastructure seen in corporate offices is making its way into industrial environments like the SpaceX proving grounds, along with the same smartphones, tablets and other pieces of technology that engineers also use at home. “The same processing technology, fundamentally, that’s in our phones or in our computers is being packaged up in these industrial packages,” Smith says.

Bring your own device
The ubiquity of smartphones is driving much of the push of consumer IT into the industrial workplace, as well as advancements in computing power over the past five years, says Matt Newton, director of technical marketing at Opto 22. In fact, he says, “we’re starting to see technologies like the modern web browser and mobile devices apps replace traditional HMI hardware and software.”

That takeover of conventional human-machine interfaces (HMIs) by more flexible, cheaper and more portable smartphones, tablets and other consumer-grade technology can breathe new life into even decades-old equipment, says Daymon Thompson, automation specialist at Beckhoff Automation. The trend is driving adoption even at older facilities.

Modern web technologies like HTML5 and JavaScript make it possible. Not just operations but also the programming of machines is possible through web interfaces, which allow users to drag and drop buttons and other elements to create the code needed to run machines. “To make that easy and seamless, it’s HTML, no matter if the tablet is iOS or Android,” Thompson says.

A technology known as Message Queue Telemetry Transport (MQTT)—the same technology used by Facebook Messenger—is another of the technologies tying it all together.

Michael Risse, vice president at Seeq, calls MQTT a game changer, particularly because it is a secure and open standard. Data transported by MQTT from devices on the factory floor are safer from hacking and, because MQTT is open and not proprietary, it can be adopted by a wide range of vendors.

MQTT was designed as a simple, lightweight messaging protocol for use by devices without much computing power in areas where bandwidth is low, has a high degree of latency, or is just plain unreliable. Exactly like on a big factory floor where lots of metal and broad coverage areas challenge radio signals.

To work, MQTT relies on sensors and machines to publish data to a server, called a message broker, which is then subscribed to by smartphones and other devices. This pub/sub model sends updates only when data changes. This is in contrast to older technologies that require machines to continually transmit their status whether there are changes or not, using valuable bandwidth.

Arlen Nipper, who co-invented MQTT with Andy Stanford-Clark in the late 1990s, feels that the specification is only just realizing its full potential—a potential that it certainly wasn’t close to achieving at its inception. “Andy and I invented that on a project for Phillips 66,” he says. “It was 18 years ago. There was no notion of the Internet of Things or cloud. It was a SCADA system.” Now, what started as a way to get data on fluid flowing through pipes over a limited-bandwidth connection is emerging as a key enabler of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Just as MQTT allows for the transport of data from devices connected to different nodes in bandwidth-challenged areas, RESTful APIs allow for the transport of data within the same node, as Newton explains in an Automation World blog, “The Impact of RESTful and MQTT on Industrial Networks.”

RESTful APIs improve on older architectures in a very important way, as Newton explains. “Traditional industrial system architecture is built around a bus topology,” he says. “Assets are connected to the bus and all speak the same protocol.” The problem there is that not every device in a factory is connected to the same bus nor speaks the same protocol, which presents a major barrier to realizing the full benefits of the connected architecture that is the IIoT.

Just like with MQTT, Newton says, RESTful APIs provide a common standard for devices and software to share data, with no middleware or multiple protocols required. “REST APIs are used all across the Internet today,” he says. And, increasingly, “they’re the technology that stitches the IIoT together.”

Raspberry Pi and Arduino
Along with software making its way into industrial applications comes hardware from the consumer world. This includes inexpensive and lightweight computing platforms like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

Such platforms lower the barriers to creating low-cost interfaces for just about any machine, and collect and process data from controllers, says Melinda Corley, a software specialist for InduSoft, part of Wonderware by Schneider Electric.

They also play nicely with MQTT, points out Travis Cox, director of sales and engineering for Inductive Automation. As an example, Cox points to a major automotive company that uses Raspberry Pis on each programmable logic controller (PLC) in its factory to convert protocols used by machines into the MQTT standard.

But there are caveats, Newton says. Though platforms like Raspberry Pi can enable rapid prototyping and help get applications up and running quickly, they aren’t designed for industrial use, where they might be subject to temperature extremes and other challenging conditions. “For deployment, engineers should look for something that’s industrially rated,” he advises.

Thompson has an additional concern. “I doubt that in five years those chips will even be available,” he says. “Whatever controller supplier that you choose should be able to offer long-term availability of the exact model.”

Consumer-grade mobile devices will soon be able to gather data without direct connections to servers. This will happen because radios within smartphones and tablets will be able to connect with each other in peer-to-peer networks to share data. That’s the concept behind applications designed to use an open-source platform known as Thali, which was created through a partnership between Microsoft and Rockwell Automation.

“Microsoft put a team on it and we guided them on the requirements,” explains Kyle Reissner, industrial automation mobility and platform leader at Rockwell. “Over the last year, Rockwell has invested money into it to bring it to prototype phase.”

Rockwell’s FactoryTalk TeamONE is one application designed for Thali. “The server’s actually in the app,” Reissner explains.

For now, the app depends on external networks for connectivity. After installing TeamONE, users form a team within the app with which to share data. From there, team members can individually record status and other information from factory machines—even in areas of a plant without Internet connectivity. Once back within Wi-Fi range, the app synchronizes with the cloud, where the data can then be synchronized with other team members. A major benefit is saving plant operators the expense of extending Wi-Fi throughout a facility.

Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk TeamONE was designed to work with Thali, an open-source platform.

Rockwell released TeamONE as a free app in Google and iOS app stores in November. Among future upgrades will be the ability to use Thali to synchronize with each other without going through the cloud as an intermediary. “Imagine you have an in-cabinet wireless network,” Reissner says. “Me and you are both in range of that. We’re trusted team members. We could use that simple plant floor bridge to synchronize some data to use.”

Such applications, however, are just the first step. With further Thali-enabled enhancements, TeamONE colleagues will be able to network with each other using just the radios in their own devices. “What we’re trying to do with Thali is to bring resiliency to networks as well as bring in a capability [so] that people don’t even need wireless,” Reissner says.

Rockwell plans to start field trials with individual customers using Thali in 2017. Thali, Reissner says, “is an open source project, so anybody can contribute. We intend to keep it that way. ”

Putting it together
Ultimately, all of these technologies making their way on the plant floor are just means to whatever end each plant operator needs to reach. “Inevitably,” Reissner says, “it’s not about producing RESTful APIs and using MQTT; it’s about the outcome.”

For best results, start with a use case and then pick what will best get the job done, Beckhoff’s Thompson advises. “Figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. What does it mean for your business and how is it going to help your bottom line? And once you identify that from a business perspective, then let’s go research how to architect that.”

Whether it’s for a cutting-edge rocket company or something much more down to earth, these technologies have the ability to scale and they are within reach of just about anyone who wants to use them.

Thompson cites the example of a microbrewer customer, whose operators can be alerted to problems at the plant via their smartphones before the problems become costly. “Whatever they’re doing,” he explains, “they can get a notification that says ‘Hey, Vat 2 has an over temperature.’”

It makes all the difference for the bottom line, no rocket science required.

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