A New Frontier: The Space Connecting the Internet of Things

Feb. 4, 2015
As more smart devices populate the industrial network, vendors work on ways to manage the many layers between sensors and systems.

The industrial Internet of Things (IoT) is currently in “hype” phase—a lot of talk, testing, and horn-tooting. But the reality is, it is the next area of technology innovation for manufacturing, which is why work is well underway by vendors and industry groups to develop scalable and secure methods for connecting the dots.

The products and services emerging are as diverse as the IoT itself. Most focus on a specific network issue or application, and that’s OK, as the industry is in the midst of piecing together a big puzzle.

Here are just a few of the vendors working to solve interoperability issues across the great industrial divide:

ILS Technology: Recently acquired by machine-to-machine service provider Telit Communications, ILS has created the deviceWISE M2M/IoT Application Enablement Platform to directly link intelligent devices with enterprise applications and databases. Leveraging the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) TR-50 M2M protocol standard, interoperability can happen quickly, “and you don’t need an army of programmers,” says ILS President Fred Yentz.

The deviceWISE platform sits in the cloud and acts as “a powerful mediation layer” to either pull information from islands of automation-- such as a remote pump station—or to get information out of the plant and into the enterprise domain to perform analytics. “Our strength is to get data and deliver it when, where, and how people want it using whatever systems companies already have in place,” Yentz says.

Moving forward, ILS will embed deviceWISE into cellular modules to further enable the IoT.

National Instruments: When it comes to embedded systems, National Instrument’s LabVIEW programming software is designed to reduce the complexity and time of developing new embedded monitoring and control applications. This will come in handy in the IoT arena, especially given LabVIEW’s integration with OPC UA, an open platform interoperability standard for industrial automation, which will help connect the bottom layer to the rest of the automation hierarchy.

“Our vision is to target from traditional industrial automation applications to more complex embedded applications in just one platform,” says National Instrument’s product marketing manager Carlos Pazos. “But regardless of the application that we implement with an embedded device, communication is the challenge. That’s why the partnership with OPC Foundation is important.”

Beckhoff: The company, which implements open automation systems based on PC control technology, is positioning itself to play perfectly within the Industry 4.0 and IoT ecosystem. The basic principle of Industry 4.0—originally initiated by the German government-- is to connect machines and systems through intelligent networks so that they can control each other autonomously across the entire value chain. Beckhoff’s EtherCAT (Ethernet for control and automation technology), an IEC 61158 standard, is an Ethernet fieldbus technology with real-time transfer down to the I/O level—where devices and sensors sit.

Couple the EtherCAT backbone with controllers that support 25 different communication protocols, and data can be delivered wherever it’s needed.

The connected machines can “talk” to each other in terms of exchanging data types and sharing a data repository on a server. In addition, using TwinCAT 3 programming software, controller information could be sent to the cloud and back to a tablet, smart device, or emerging “data glasses” concepts such as Google Glass acting as a wearable HMI to provide alarm information to a system operator on the plant floor or anywhere in the enterprise.

Most importantly, the controller to cloud solution is using existing standards, such as OPC UA, and, to all the security-conscious manufacturers out there—it is safe. “Connectivity doesn’t mean the loss of intellectual property,” says Beckhoff Automation TwinCAT product specialist Daymon Thompson.

Fluke Networks: Having communication and interoperability between devices is a moot point if the network can’t handle the traffic. Fluke ensures the physical attributes of a network as well as the network protocols are reliable and the quality of service is predictable. In the factory, the network is often fragmented, as there may be different areas requiring special protocols, or there is wireless deployed. “Fluke comes in to design the network to ensure performance,” says David Coffin, the company's CTO. “We can ensure the sensor can talk to the cloud and we measure response times between the two.”

Of course, there are many more examples of how vendors are evolving products to accommodate the IoT. The goal is to create a foundation for which intelligent devices can improve manufacturing operations. We’re not really there yet, but the industry is certainly on track to take on this new frontier.