Welcome to the Internet of Things for Industrial Automation

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SolutionsPT, a specialist in industrial automation, argues that the Internet of Things (IoT) has come of age in automation.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is already here in the automation industry. This is not because of a seismic shift in manufacturing's conservative approach to IT, and nor is it because of a major product launch or a new player in the sector. In fact it has been here all along, slowly growing as industry increasingly takes advantage of technologies and platforms that interpret data from SCADA, supervisory HMI, MES and EMI systems. At Advantech's IoT conference in July 2012, Mike Lees of SolutionsPT explained why and how this has happened.

While it is true that the IoT is much more readily associated with the consumer electronics IT sectors, it offers multiple benefits to the manufacturing and automation industries. It represents the next huge leap in automation, particularly where there is an advantage to be derived from the acquisition and organisation of previously unthinkable amounts of data.

This is particularly true in applications such as process optimisation, where engineers used to be restricted to collecting just a few data points, limited by simple serial networks and the negligible storage capacity of the control devices, particularly with PLC-based control systems.

The adoption of plant historians, generally based on Microsoft SQL server, represented the next step towards the ability to manage the required quantity of data. The final stride was the removal of the communications bottleneck that legacy internet access represented and the introduction of cloud-based storage.

However, there is still a challenge in distributed architectures, such as those often found in the utilities sector, where communications support is normally provided by wireless networking and, historically, connectivity has not been great. Nevertheless, in factory automation the IoT will supplement the existing Ethernet backbone, connecting devices and assets that were not practically able to access fixed networking.

What does IoT look like in manufacturing and automation?

SAP, the enterprise software manufacturer, defines the Internet of Things as, 'a world where physical objects are seamlessly integrated into the information network, and where the physical objects can become active participants in business processes. Services are available to interact with these 'smart objects' over the Internet, query and change their state and any information associated with them, taking into account security and privacy issues.'

The device layer of IoT comprises sensors, networks, services and applications. SolutionsPT provides sensing products to acquire the front-end data, thanks to its partnership with Advantech. After convergence and processing, this data is sent to the service layer via the network. Ultimately, the database will be used in various fields with different strategies. Furthermore, SolutionsPT also offers the SCADA and historian systems for the service layer to manage the status of sensing devices, as well as the interpretation platforms through which all of this data can be managed.

Consider, for example, a discrete manufacturing plant; consider the value of having parts self-identify with RFID tags, and automatically controlled rolling bins and forklifts moving parts and subsystems without human intervention - and always getting the right part to the right place at the right time. And then consider the further value of having all that information available in easily accessible databases wherever needed.

Ultimately, though, the IoT means a commitment to the value of data as a management tool. It can be about gathering data without knowing how it will ultimately be used, as the cost of gathering and storing data is now relatively low. This 'big data' philosophy makes it possible for data consumers to create 'mash-ups' in order to see the wider picture that is of particular interest to them, whether that relates to production efficiency, product quality, the exact state of progress of a product through the manufacturing process, or almost anything else.

Easy to implement

In addition, the IoT is good for retrofitting to existing production processes, perhaps when installing a new machine within an existing production line or plant. Where new end-of-line automated test and inspection equipment is being installed, the technology is excellent for gathering all measured values and storing them so that analyses can be carried out in real time or in the event of a product failure in the field. Data can be made available without having to trouble the plant's IT department and without causing concerns in relation to data security. And for those who are sceptical about the security of production data on the cloud, it is notable that 'secure data warehouses' already been adopted by some manufacturers of pharmaceuticals.

For machine builders, one of the main attractions of the IoT is that this can be incorporated within a machine for almost no extra cost, yet it can be a significant differentiator for machine buyers that are interested in either adopting the IoT is the immediate or near future, or who appreciate the wisdom of future-proofing new machinery.

The changing landscape of manufacturing IT

Another driver for the IoT is the changing demographics of manufacturing IT. New engineers have a culture of implementing systems with scope of creativity and use in a way that was not initially envisaged. For instance, there is a willingness to model all the things in the manufacturing world and make it easy to remix them in new ways to build new applications, which is a key characteristic of the IoT.

This trend is part of a wider process of integrating the world of consumer electronics and enterprise IT more closely into the traditionally conservative manufacturing environment. This is partly the result of the almost universal use of Microsoft products as well as the adoption of Ethernet and wireless as communication standards, and the much wider acceptance of PC control over the last decade.

Other examples of this trend include virtualisation, which is itself a precursor to the cloud, availability as a core KPI (Key Performance Indicator), enhanced security and the adoption of thin client architecture, which in a sense mirrors the largely obsolete enterprise mainframe computing model.

Ultimately, though, manufacturing is characterised by a set of qualities that are different from those found in enterprise IT. For example, hardware has an extended service life, often being used for over a decade, compared to three of four years in the enterprise world. One of the reasons for this is that updates are much harder to apply because of the need for validated systems in many applications. Furthermore, continuity of supply is a constant requirement and downtime is a constant fear.

To discuss the Internet of Things for industrial automation, contact SolutionsPT.

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