Using PC Gateways to Connect Legacy Systems

Using an ultra-small industrial PC that acts as an Internet of Things gateway provides benefits such as communication, Big Data analytics and proactive maintenance.

There are several reasons for the advance of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). One is that the cost of connecting a device has fallen, thanks in part to the continuing drop in price for semiconductor technology. Another is that a benefit of communication is an increase in available data. This means that manufacturing floors have access to sensor and other data that machines generate. In turn, this allows better decision-making about the health of a machine and a process.

For example, having access to the Big Data analytics of a factory raises the possibility of tuning production to skew it to higher output and lower failure rates. Connectivity also enables two-way communication, with remote access, for monitoring and control of manufacturing devices and systems. This ability allows a factory to move from reactive maintenance to proactive maintenance, resulting in less unplanned downtime, greater productivity and lower costs.

But there exists a stumbling block for many companies when it comes to achieving these benefits. According to IMS Research, about 85 percent of devices currently in use are legacy systems and often operate in standalone, isolated applications. Because these devices have long lifespans, many of the systems in place in factories today either lack any connection capability, use a proprietary protocol, or are otherwise unable to link up with the modern IIoT systems.

To overcome this legacy device barrier, users can deploy an IoT gateway to serve as a bridge between legacy devices and the wider world of systems, the cloud and the IoT. If you choose to pursue this option, be sure to select an IoT gateway with the right physical and communication characteristics.

Bridging the gap

An IoT gateway can overcome the legacy challenge by linking systems on the factory floor with the IoT and on to the cloud by supplying the missing communication capability. What’s more, since it is a single and separate add-on unit, it can be upgraded and changed out as needed. It also is possible to install such a solution in stages, deploying it first to those systems that provide the greatest return on investment and then rolling it out to others when doing so makes the most sense.

An IoT gateway, like any communication solution, must be cost-effective. To see why, consider that it will be applied to legacy systems. This means it could be applied in situations where the other equipment is substantially or fully depreciated. Though this helps the bottom line of a manufacturing process, it places constraints on any upgrade or add-on. After all, any addition to an existing system could have a significant impact on the bottom line and profitability. That makes it imperative that the IoT gateway be cost-effective.

In addition, a gateway must offer wide and comprehensive protocol support. As an add-on, a gateway will have to successfully interface with a variety of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and other devices, which communicate via different interfaces and protocols. The gateway must be able to deal with all of these. The gateway should also handle data acquisition and protocol conversion of the data into an appropriate format.

An industrial PC (IPC) can meet these IoT gateway requirements and satisfy several other important parameters. Critically, an IPC can be both rugged and compact. The first is a necessity because the application is an industrial one, therefore any device in this kind of environment will be exposed to temperature, humidity, vibration and dust extremes. An IPC is designed and built to work reliably in such conditions.

As for the requirement that a solution be compact, that arises because any gateway will be an add-on to a legacy system. The amount of available space might be very limited, which means that a communication solution should take up as little space as possible. Because such space constraints can limit functionality of an IPC in such an application, it is preferable for the IPC gateway to have a flexible form factor and allow for configuration as needed.

Finally, any IoT gateway must provide web and cloud access, as well as support for a human-machine interface (HMI). The first option is important for any remote access. The second is extremely useful when changes are going to be made locally. Again, a solution based on an IPC can offer such capabilities.

Reaping the benefits

Advantech’s various UNO offerings are examples of such IoT gateways. This product family includes X86 systems (UNO-2271G) as well as others based on RISC and QUARK processors (UNO-1251G and UNO-1252G). Their compact designs support 3G, 4G LTE and low-power WAN connectivity. With Advantech WebAccess/HMI on these gateways, they can support more than 450 types of PLCs and I/O drivers.

When installed, an IoT gateway makes it possible to acquire, store, filter and analyze the data generated daily by systems on a factory floor. As an example, consider a lathe used to process a metal part or a laser that welds two parts together. Either machine could tally up how many parts are processed in an hour or a day, how long the operation takes, and various other bits of information—such as a sensor reading as to how successful the material processing is. This data can be combined with other inputs from machines or systems—ranging from earlier production processes to final quality control sensors and associated QC checks.

This information can go through analysis to help identify trends. For example, one machine might consistently output product that has a greater likelihood of being in spec and a lower chance of being rejected. A second might do just the opposite. Big Data analytics can reveal such trends, particularly those that involve interaction between machines or conditions that only arise in specific machine processing sequences. The insights possible with this type and volume of data include determining which machine or set of machines makes the best product and offers the highest productivity. Such information can lead to better and more streamlined processes, thereby increasing throughput, reducing cost, improving quality and even cutting energy consumption.

Having more data can also improve machine maintenance. For example, linking information on the status of a system with the quality of its output and analyzing this data can uncover patterns that can be used to predict machine health—even if there is not active machine health monitoring going on. These patterns and the associated data could then lead to proactive maintenance, allowing manufacturers to move from a reactive stance, in which problems are fixed after they happen, to one in which issues are resolved before a machine goes down and product is possibly ruined.

There are many benefits to such a proactive approach. For example, maintenance can be scheduled in advance and at times when the impact on output is minimized. Overall maintenance activities can also be reduced by fixing machines only when there is a need and not according to a rigid schedule. Finally, the chance that production will be out of spec and therefore either reworked or scrapped can be lessened. These benefits, along with less unplanned downtime, can yield a substantial payback.

For more information, visit Advantech.

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