When Industrial Things Really Begin Conversing

July 3, 2013
We’ve been discussing the idea of things talking for many years. Now technologies and use cases are finally starting to coalesce into the ‘next big thing’ for improving manufacturing and production.

It will be interesting when things really begin to talk. And listen. And talk back. We’ve been discussing the idea of things talking for many years. Now technologies and use cases are finally starting to coalesce into the “next big thing” for improving manufacturing and production.

You know the technology is finally stable enough when suppliers that are not thought of as specifically “automation” suppliers are embedding connectivity into their products. That is one of the top goals for OPC UA, according to Tom Burke, president of the OPC Foundation (www.opcfoundation.org), for example. Technology should just be used.

The original conversations were distinctly more limited—as is often the case as technologies are developed. We started with something called “machine to machine” (M2M). This was really just substituting cellular networks as the new broadband for remote SCADA applications. But it was the beginning of the conversation.

>> Can we Talk? Let the work begin on the Internet of Things, M2M, Pervasive Internet—or “Industrial Internet.” http://bit.ly/1cjfum6

Before too long, wireless technology development was blossoming. Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11 specifications) had become ubiquitous. Wireless mesh network development, based on IEEE 802.15.4, has progressed beyond the chaotic/posturing stage and has settled into two camps of industrial standards—WirelessHART and ISA100. All of these wireless technologies provide a stable connectivity medium with many options so that engineers can design a system suitable for their applications.

What if things talked?
Many years ago, I had a “philosophical” conversation with Peter Martin, vice president at Invensys Operations Management (iom.invensys.com), around the thought, “What if you could easily and inexpensively install sensors in many critical areas of the plant? How much could you know about how the plant is really working?” Thereafter, Invensys began revealing software development designed to exploit information directly from the plant, as well as any other relevant data source, in order to help its customers make better decisions at every level of the organization.

Similar conversations with John Berra, then CEO of Emerson Process Management (www.emersonprocess.com), and Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer of Emerson Process Management, delved into the technologies of wireless sensor networks (WSNs) that would enable these visions of more and better plant operations data. Emerson—along with several other companies—backed the WSN developed by the HART Communication Foundation known as WirelessHART. Others backed the technology espoused by the ISA100 committee (www.isa.org/isa100). These technologies are now being rapidly deployed.

You know that technologies are maturing when companies not known specifically as “controls” companies begin embedding them in products. The SKF Group (www.skf.com/group), which manufactures bearings and related components, has recently done just that. It has released SKF Insight, a bearing with sensors and a WirelessHART transmitter embedded. Now your condition monitoring of rotating equipment can go to an entirely new level.

The basic technologies will never realize their full power until there is some binding that brings it all together. Recently, I talked with David Friedman, one of the founders and the CEO of Ayla Networks (www.aylanetworks.com), a company that just emerged from stealth mode with a couple of announcements. I think that what they are doing is significant to manufacturing and production (and a lot more, as well).

“We are at the beginning of a major evolutionary step for the Internet,” Friedman says. “We have built a platform that eliminates the hurdles involved in building great connected devices and bringing them to market. We have also created a business model with key partnerships to deliver on this vision.”

The company’s platform seeks to simplify and accelerate product development for manufacturers while enhancing usability from the consumer’s perspective, leading to greater overall satisfaction and lower costs for everyone. The efficiency by which the company can provide its service also minimizes the cost of connectivity.

>> Gary Mintchell, [email protected], is Founding Editor of Automation World.