Real-World Challenges Lead the Way

Taking stock of industry’s progress toward the Internet of Things reveals significant actions taking place in key areas, though we remain years away from full-blown applications.

Phil Marshall CEO, Hilscher North America
Phil Marshall CEO, Hilscher North America

I often wonder what the “silent majority” of automation engineers thinks about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Hilscher has been banging on about the benefits of IIoT for more than two years, and, in our netIOT range, we’ve launched a powerful, high-value proposition portfolio of products that I believe will help transform the automation market in the coming years.

I can tell you that our netIOT Edge Gateway, which takes field data and transmits it into IT and cloud-based applications, is generating more interest than any other new product we’ve launched in recent years. The basic job of this gateway is to sit on an automation network—any flavor will do—and either passively or actively get the data that remote services need to deliver fresh insights into plant operations.

The gateway does a whole lot more than that, of course, and if you’ve been following Hilscher, you’ll have some idea of how broad the capabilities are. Nevertheless, I know from experience that phrases such as “fresh insights” and “improvements in plant operations” can be viewed with suspicion by many. I don’t blame anybody for this, except perhaps ourselves. It is our duty to lead, but as an industry we tend to predict potential paradise too often.

What’s available now?
Many of Hilscher’s new business leads are end users wanting to take existing plants and improve them now, not in 10 years’ time. Our value proposition is attracting them on the basis that something new could offer incrementally better ways of working today, though not necessarily a leap into full-blown IIoT.

From my vantage point on industry, I wonder if the IIoT market is fragmenting into two parts—one dealing with existing brownfield applications and another geared to greenfield sites where all-new concepts can apply.

Fortunately, our product offering can serve both challenges. For brownfield applications, the netIOT Edge Gateway can be a simple slave on a real-time Ethernet network to undertake familiar data gathering tasks. That data can be stored indefinitely—making stats and historian-like functions possible—or it can be accessed through OPC UA, MQTT or cloud applications in any number of ways. Plants where programmable logic controllers (PLCs) can’t be reprogrammed, perhaps because no one is left with the expertise, can easily access untapped data to find out what exactly is going on and fix it. And all of this can happen today without jeopardizing current working equipment or processes.

For greenfield installations, the netIOT family offers embedded chips and interfaces, which can make even the simplest sensor IoT-aware. This family of products also has gateways and a portfolio of software services for connections to leading IT and cloud infrastructures, such as those from IBM, Microsoft and SAP.

Experience shows that a few key champions tend to drive all technology leaps. These champions often work at major end users like the automotive manufacturers and their suppliers. But it takes far longer for the industrial community as a whole to catch on. Vendors seeking to serve the leaders start catching up quickly or they miss out on new business. Gradually, the wider community picks up success messages and climbs on board too. Over a period of years, the technology becomes the new go-to and a fresh status quo begins.

Considering this process, where do we stand now with IIoT? I would say “early on” is the best answer as complete IIoT installations are still some years away. I say this because IIoT forces IT and OT to collide and that adds complications at both the people level and the computing level. IIoT is not just a communications issue but a far bigger strategic proposition. Plus, new technologies and related terms are emerging. Take “digital twin” as an example. Or Node-RED. What do these mean to an engineer still locked into 4-20 mA?

Anyone wanting to sell IIoT products today must deal with this. Our vision of IIoT stands firm and we are not hesitating to support background IIoT developments, such as Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), but we recognize that, in the real world, existing challenges are uppermost in the minds of our customers for the moment.

Facing the reality of the real world while actively supporting the IIoT vision is turning out to be one of the most interesting aspects of our job today.

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