The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is becoming a clearer concept with each month that passes. Whether the forecast of tens of billions of devices connected by 2020 is right or not (it seems an exaggeration to me), we at Hilscher are now certain of the IIoT future for automation. And our customers are confirming that we are on the right track.
You may have heard about our partnership with IBM in implementing John Deere’s strategy—the Smart Manufacturing Platform—for getting more from their factory data. Their aim is to make better products more effectively. We’ve also announced an agreement with SAP to provide field-level data access via our netIOT Edge Gateway to the SAP HANA Cloud Platform and the SAP Asset Intelligence Network for improved asset management.
These are very exciting developments for Hilscher, but I keep hearing: “So, how much does all this cost?” In response, I say that, in hardware terms at least, it is very cost-effective indeed and can fit all budgets. We believe even simple, one-off machines can now be linked to the cloud to benefit from the kinds of analytics that only the big boys could afford in the past.
Application software, public cloud platforms and other essential elements of an IIoT architecture are widely available on an as-used basis; plus, you pay only for what you use. Multimillion-dollar investments are no longer needed to deploy an advanced IT system.
Another reason IIoT will be central to automation’s future is that it does not adversely affect existing systems and equipment. Real-time Ethernet networks, such as EtherNet/IP and Profinet, routinely operate at much less than 100 percent capacity, and it’s that spare capacity that is used to transmit IIoT data from the field to the edge gateways and up to the cloud. It happens invisibly with little or no impact on normal control operations.
Along with the change IIoT is bringing to industry, a new lexicon is emerging that we must all get familiar with. For example, we hear more and more about “on-premise” data processing—a straightforward solution to the need for fast, low-latency responses. Rather than send data to the cloud and wait for a reply, processing happens within the edge gateway. That might not sound like a full-blown IoT implementation, but believe me it fills a big gap, especially in automation. On-premise gateways support open-source software as well as a variety of “as a service” solutions, so running applications such as IBM Watson locally becomes feasible. Imagine having the ability to bring the power of Watson to analyze your equipment today!
Then there’s the tantalizing “promiscuous mode” of operation. Hilscher’s netIOT Edge Gateway has the ability to listen to everything on the network—including regular control activity—and write data to the cloud. In this scenario, remote applications can be configured for “read only,” which ensures the separation of IT and the field to prevent security breaches.
Node-RED, an open source solution for configuring IIoT structures, is another term and technology gaining prominence. It is at the heart of Hilscher’s Thing Editor, which makes designing and building IIoT functions really easy. I guarantee you’ll be seeing much more of Node-RED in the IIoT future.
Amid all this change and new terms, many things remain the same. Well-proven technologies like OPC UA are becoming increasingly relevant. OPC UA offers multiple benefits. It supports secure data collection both horizontally and vertically within a network, and even upwards into the cloud. Via its embeddable OPC UA Nano and Micro profiles, it facilitates reading data from field devices that no programmable logic controller (PLC) would be interested in and will encourage the evolution of smarter devices that deliver data such as temperature, vibration, current and voltage from field devices in parallel with real-time monitoring and control data.
With all these features—and more—IIoT is destined to add a new dimension to operations. New ways of monitoring and control will evolve and could lead to new ways for vendors to work with customers; for example, the leasing of machines or the continuous monitoring and improvement of equipment by the OEM in real time.
Who knows what other benefits will arise as users become familiar with what’s available? It’s a genuinely disruptive scenario that could put early adopters well ahead of competitors. The opportunities appear limitless. But don’t worry, even with the major changes being brought by IIoT, you stay in control; it’s your skills, experience and creativity that ultimately count.
The biggest question of all is: What exactly do you want to achieve? I believe every plant operator should be investigating the opportunities now and, without a doubt, the answer will be different for each user. If you’re not actively pursuing an IIoT strategy yet, I suggest you start researching things right away because the benefits might surprise you—and they may give your competitors a surprise in turn!
IIoT is kick-starting a new era in automation. Are you up for the challenge?