Imagine industrial systems that can adjust to their own environments or even their own health. Instead of running to failure, machines schedule their own maintenance or, better yet, adjust their control algorithms dynamically to compensate for a worn part and then communicate that data to other machines and the people who rely on those machines. Sounds great, right? Well, it’s possible to do this now but, as the saying goes, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”
As innovation grows so does the complexity, which makes the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) a large investment that no company alone can make. Bringing this vision to fruition requires overcoming three key challenges:
Security: The systems and the communications within IIoT need to be secure or billions of dollars worth of assets are at risk. Standards bodies, consortiums and co-ops—such as the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC)—are working to develop the standards needed to ensure security, but there is still much work to be done. Companies looking to increase their security should begin with an IT-friendly OS, such as SE Linux, that they can securely provision and configure to properly authenticate and authorize users to maintain system integrity and maximize system availability.
Communication: Especially within IIoT, we need to standardize on an Ethernet-based protocol that can leverage new Ethernet technologies to create an open and deterministic network. This network must meet IIoT latency, determinism and bandwidth requirements while maximizing interoperability between industrial system providers and the consumer Internet of Things. Clearly, we will need standards that support interoperability between multiple vendors like OPC UA and DDS, but we will also need networking technology to ensure low-latency communication on a converged network. IEEE has formed the Time Sensitive Network task group to evolve IEEE 802.1 to meet these requirements.
Flexibility: The big unanswered question about the IIoT is that no one knows exactly what it will bring. Though we can’t tell the future, we must still be prepared for it. In addition to being secure, these systems need to be continually modified and maintained to meet ever-changing functionality and system-maintenance requirements. Using traditional approaches to add new functionality can get complicated. As more capabilities are added, software updates are needed or more systems must be added. Soon a tangled web of interconnected components starts to form. These new systems and functionalities have to integrate not only with the original system but also all of the other systems. The thought of this gets even scarier when you imagine modifying and updating thousands—or millions—of systems located all over the world, including some in remote locations.
Developing and deploying the systems that will comprise the IIoT represent a massive investment for decades to come. The only way to meet the needs of today and tomorrow is not by predicting the future, but by deploying a network of systems flexible enough to evolve and adapt. The way forward involves a platform-based approach—a single flexible hardware architecture deployed across many applications removes a substantial amount of the hardware complexity and makes each new problem primarily a software challenge. The same principle must be applied to software tools to form a powerful hardware-software platform that creates a unified solution.
An effective platform-based approach does not focus on hardware or software, but instead on the innovation within the application itself. A prime example of this is Airbus, which is using NI’s LabVIEW software and reconfigurable hardware to accelerate its development process as it builds the Factory of the Future. Airbus found this platform-based design approach cut its development time by a factor of 10. By using a platform-based approach, you too can solve the challenges of the IIoT today and in the future.