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What is the future for IIoT in the current world of automation and control?

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Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems manage industrial processes automatically to reduce costs and regulate product quality. These process control systems have been in place now for many years, with improvements to the technology making them ever more efficient and cost-effective. However, technological buzzwords are developing as fast as technology itself. From around 2010, industry starting hearing increasing levels of noise about the “Internet of Things” (IoT). The IoT embeds sensors into various products – from domestic appliances, household goods and medical products through to industrial processes – and links them to us through the internet. This facilitates remote and automated control to make our lives easier and to reduce costs and supplies streams of data to us about the processes. Quite recently, an extra “I” was included to become the “Industrial Internet of Things” (IIoT), the addition of IoT to industrial systems. The IIoT is evolving fast. This article tries to plot its likely trajectory and how it may impact and integrate with today’s conventional controls and automation systems and their components such as PLCs & SCADA systems.

IIoT technology can be brought into process industries very cost-effectively if installed when updating out-dated controls software. Modern industrial processes, using computerised, automated control and management systems, must be kept up to date. Upgrades to existing industrial controls and automation systems are required every few years to ensure their continuing efficiency. This will include computer operating system upgrades, e.g. from Windows XP or 7 up to Windows 10, to ensure ongoing Microsoft support and upgrades to the control system software interfacing and managing of all the peripheral controls devices. Systems have, over the years, migrated from ‘standalone’ islands of automation towards integrated factories and increasingly complex companywide systems with live information available to all. This has also driven requirements for up-to-date cyber security protection for the systems and their networks.

The addition of more up-to-the-minute, low-cost, wireless-linked IIoT sensors, in the transition of upgrading systems following systems audits, can uplift those controls systems into the new age of IIoT. The need to upgrade older control systems is driven by ageing, out-dated software systems now struggling to operate. However., system and software upgrades offer the opportunity to install additional new IIoT sensor technology, slipped easily into place and communicating wirelessly with the existing controls systems. The consequent benefits of adding IIoT is both immediate and a first step into the new age of Big Data, together with improved cyber security. These rugged IIoT sensors can have high levels of Ingress Protection (IP), can meet ATEX (explosion-proof) requirements and have extensive lifetimes to meet demanding environments.

Adding more low-cost IIoT sensors makes industrial machinery more aware and collects vital data to help improve future machine and process designs. Sensors measuring, for example, vibration, temperature, humidity, current/load, voltage profiles, speed of rotational machinery, supply harmonics, ambient noise, all are now becoming available with low cost wireless communications. Sensors such as these  will  integrate with current controls systems and with new “thin client”, portable and sexy human machine interfaces (HMIs) on laptop PCs, tablets and even smartphones.

Engineering and commercial interest in IIoT has increased dramatically in the last year, driving increased sales. Examples of companies participating in this IIoT initiative are multinationals such as Rockwell Automation/Allen Bradley, Siemens, Schneider Electric and ABB. They are developing new “condition monitoring” hardware and software, new IIoT sensors and systems to collect and collate the data.

Engineering organisations known as Systems Integrators (SIs) are ideally placed to assist industry and manufacturers to deal with this new wave of technological change. This calls for flexible, highly skilled industrial organisations to design and retrofit these control systems into existing process plant and to install systems into new plant. SIs buy in the systems’ components from other specialist engineering manufacturers and integrate them into the final control systems to meet the required specifications from the customers.

 For SIs, new revenue streams will accrue from IIoT which will require them to form new partnerships. Examples are in HEVAC organisations, companies installing server-room cooling systems , asset management and events organisations, IT and communications, all where dense people-spaces now require additional sensing for humidity, temperature and CO2 and the management of these parameters. This is becoming increasingly important in more dense technological working environments, for the control of the principal elements of their processes together with the increased need for data on the operations of systems. These partnerships will include those companies with critical skills in data management.

What are the simplest ways to make the operation of complex systems most readily understood by human operators and systems’ management? New thin client HMI systems on tablets and smartphones are becoming available as alternative control panels. This is explained in terms of “industry 4.0”, “a high-tech plan proposed by the German government which has become the goal for all countries to imitate and pursue” – amplified by “Arrow” on May 1st in “Combination of Industrial Automation and IoT makes Industry 4.0 a Reality”. The development of attractive, sexy displays has simplified presentations for users and operators of complex process instrumentation and controls. An early description of this trend by “Control Engineering” on June 6th 2014 mentions how “an HMI can be a PC running off-the-shelf software configured for the application, or an operator interface terminal (OIT) with an embedded operating system and pre-packaged software.” This has now extended into tablets and even to smartphones, allowing the representation of processes to be taken by systems operators right into the heart of an industrial process itself, as it operates! Miniaturised, simplified and portable control panels operating inside complex plant as it runs, a completely new world for process industries….  

Key to new IIoT, control and automation systems’ sales will be attractive designs and Augmented Reality for HMIs on tablets in thin client format, as Rockwell  Automation explains in “thin client management software allows control and security in a sustainable and scalable platform regardless of the size of your industrial environment or number of facilities.”

But what will all this process data be used for? For whom does is have most value? Why is Big Data, derived from IIoT, the new gold rush?  Adidas describes their faith in new investment in automation in articles about their Storefactory in Berlin, just one example of a multinational manufacturer investing heavily in automated factories and gaining valuable data from IIoT to improve future product designs and supply chains. The advantages conferred by these new data streams are beginning to modify the business models of controls and automation companies and SIs who are now gaining commercial advantage from the new demands for more data, which means fitting more sensors and networked systems to gather that data. But who will be the emerging challengers here? Are they more of the large multinationals or small and nimble operators? Dell Technologies believes in “Use IoT and embedded technologies to connect machines, improve efficiency and create new revenue streams”. However larger companies, entrenched in more conventional automation technologies, may be out-manoevred by smaller and more fleet-of-foot systems integrators in control and automation technologies. The initial steps to implement IIoT are to add them with upgrades to ageing PLC and SCADA process control systems. At that time, add the low-cost IIoT systems to gather that data, improve control, add better HMIs and cyber security. Industry is moving fast towards this new industrial horizon

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