Automation industry veterans are IoT pioneers and didn’t know it!

Keith Blodorn, Director of Program Management at ProSoft Technology advises what to consider when starting your industrial internet of things journey

Do you consider yourself an Internet of Things Engineer? You should! Think about what the Internet of Things really means. According to Wikipedia, the Internet of Things “is the network of physical objects or ‘things’ embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity to enable objects to exchange data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices…” As an automation industry veteran, that sounds really familiar. We have been connecting intelligent devices to control networks for decades. We’re pioneers!

Acoustic coupler!

Acoustic coupler!

So, then, what’s all the fuss about? Looking through automation-oriented magazines and websites, the Internet of Things seems to be all anyone talks about. In the industrial world people call it the “Industrial Internet of Things” or “Industry 4.0” or any number of other names. But fundamentally, what is so different between this new-fangled buzzword and connecting a motor overload relay to a plant communications network like we were doing twenty years ago?

On one hand, these are basically the same idea. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is about intelligent devices like overloads, photo eyes, variable frequency drives, or PLCs providing data that we use to make our processes more efficient. IIoT is a name for a trend that has been going on in manufacturing and process control for years – remember “shop floor to top floor”? IIoT is about gathering more data from more intelligent things, and using powerful analytical tools to find and eliminate waste.

Remote Monitoring and Equipment Access
I know, we’ve been connecting to PLCs remotely for as long as most of us can remember! In the old days, remote access meant installing a serial modem connected to a dedicated phone line, so the machines we made remote access-capable were limited to the most critical operations.

What’s changed in the IIoT world is the proliferation of wireless connectivity, especially cellular networks and wireless LAN. By some estimates, 85 percent of the world’s population will be covered by high-speed cellular data networks by 2017. This has had several effects that change how we should approach remote access and equipment monitoring. First, it’s becoming feasible to gather a LOT more data from remote machines. Since 2008, the average cost per MB of cellular data has dropped 98 percent, from $0.46 per MB to just $0.01 per MB. Now, all that data that we used to deem not important enough to transmit can be made available from our remote sites.

Second, as consumer demand has driven rapid development of Internet- based user interfaces, these same technologies are making remote access to industrial equipment, and especially to process data, more accessible for more people throughout the organization.

Finally, machine builders and control engineers responsible for widely dispersed global operations can build reliable connectivity into their systems without the need for custom infrastructure and integration at the end site. Cellular technology that works on networks worldwide allows these engineers to design their system around a standard remote connection, and reasonably expect that connection to work wherever the machine ends up. For mobile equipment, access is available just about anywhere the equipment goes.

Machine and Process Control
IIoT technology is not just about cellular connections to remote machines. We are seeing new networking approaches to the old requirements of connecting sensors, operator interfaces, controllers and ERP systems that take advantage of the networking technology of today’s Internet. Major automation vendors like Rockwell Automation® and Schneider Electric® have been offering industrial Ethernet connectivity for PLCs and related devices for more than a decade. Industrial Ethernet protocols like ODVA’s EtherNet/IP provide the kind of performance required for automation systems, while also enabling interoperability with the massive Internet Protocol-based network infrastructure found in virtually every organization.

In many industrial applications, moving equipment presents a major challenge for communication to the sensors, actuators, and controls on that equipment. Many products exist to try to solve this problem, from slip rings to flexible cable trays to festoons.

However, these hard-wired solutions add cost and complexity while increasing the maintenance requirements for the machine. Meanwhile, we roam around our offices and homes with continuous connection to the Internet – no festoons in sight! Today’s automation engineers are taking advantage of the Internet Protocol-based industrial technologies to design more reliable networks for moving equipment.

Asset Mobility
One area of automation where IIoT technology is creating new opportunities involves taking the network connection anywhere in the plant. Old systems offered only so many places to “plug in.” Operators had to run the machine from one place – the operator panel. Maintenance had to jot down measurements and observations to enter into the maintenance management system when they got back to the shop. Control engineers could only program PLCs by plugging into the PLC, or to the PLC’s physical network through a proprietary adapter.

In a world where I can set my home thermostat while walking through an airport, we don’t have to live like this! Automation systems are now benefiting from the same “network everywhere” mindset as our home and office environment.

Things to Consider

Keith Blodorn - the author

Keith Blodorn – the author

The Industrial Internet of Things opens up some interesting new possibilities for automation, so you should begin planning how you can get your system “IIoT Ready.” The good news is that you likely have many pieces in place already – intelligent field devices, industrial networks, perhaps even some Internet Protocol-based infrastructure. Here is some food for thought as you consider how your system can fit into this new world of connected machines.

• Network Migration – While many of your field devices are likely already on a network, it is probably not an Internet Protocol-based network. Not to worry! As you see the need to move device data up to higher-level systems, you won’t need to scrap that tried-and-true device network. Gateway devices and in-rack protocol interfaces in your controller allow you to easily connect those older networks to the IP-based applications that need that device data. Serving up data from smart devices adds value to your operation, but it doesn’t necessarily require changing everything that is already there.

• Cybersecurity – While the interoperability of the IIoT brings great benefits, it also opens up new risks that we need to address. In reality, many automation systems are already “connected,” so cybersecurity should already be on your mind. It is important to understand what equipment can be accessed by whom, what connections are necessary and not necessary, and how data that’s transmitted outside the boundaries of your organization’s network is protected.

• Start Small – Vendors everywhere have grand visions for what the IIoT can do for manufacturers. But remember, you don’t need to dive in head first to get benefits from IIoT. Look for applications in your industry that make sense, and give them a try. One of the best parts of the IIoT concept is its scalability – Internet-based applications can just as easily serve one deployment as one million. Pick an interesting application, and run a pilot in a small area. There’s no better way to learn about a new technology than by giving it a go.

• Get Help – Most importantly, work with vendors you can trust. When it comes to industrial networking, ProSoft Technology® has been helping engineers get different equipment all talking the same language for more than 25 years. We can help you navigate your IIoT course, from connecting older Modbus® and PROFIBUS® networks to enabling remote equipment connectivity via cellular networks. When you’re ready to start the next phase of your IIoT journey, we’re here to help make it happen!

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