Industrial Internet of Things — the next big thing?
Much of what has been heard and read lately claims that the Industrial Internet of Things will be the next big thing in manufacturing and processing. When I see how interconnected equipment can be utilised to provide benefits for preventive maintenance and increasing operational uptime, it sure sounds good. The capability for production managers to interrogate the performance of the plant while off-site, or for technicians to remotely access and fix equipment or adjust settings to tune a process, provides obvious benefits.
Having all of this process data is great, but interpreting and utilising it to capitalise on the benefits requires resources. With big data being a relatively new field, the types of skills required to implement these changes are not yet commonplace. Powerful business intelligence (BI) tools are being developed to be more intuitive and user-friendly, but there is still a learning curve. Partially dependent on the size of the plant, there must be a tipping point where the demands of utilising the data require a larger investment in equipment and human effort than the potential benefits from streamlined production and maintenance.
The security risks of having production tied to the outside world through the internet present other considerations. Inadequate cybersecurity could potentially result in malware infecting your network or, possibly most concerning, the control system being reprogrammed, resulting in faulty goods. There could be downtime while the changes are rectified or PCs are disinfected. The risks are real.
There are steps that can be taken to isolate the control system from the internet. The control system can be connected only through an intranet, and then the relevant data can be dumped into a database which is available externally through the internet, but there are sizeable trade-offs as some of the benefits of running IIoT are removed. There is a time lag between the process’s operation and the data dump. The production manager can’t view real-time process status while off-site and the technician can no longer remotely access equipment.
My belief is that, for all the potential benefits, IIoT will be more evolution than revolution. We’ve seen a multitude of new protocols arrive over the years, including HART, Modbus, Profibus and Foundation Fieldbus, which have all provided the capability to access an ever-increasing amount of process data. Even now, after these protocols have been available since the late ’80s, these systems are generally used during commissioning and for set-up of replacements, rather than online monitoring. Most plants still rely on the simplicity of an analog signal for their process control monitoring. For legacy plants, part of the reason is process familiarity and training.
Even for new plants, the operational staff are usually sourced through the existing available pool of people who’ve previously been working on legacy plants and may have limited experience with the more modern protocols, so the issue carries over.
As creatures of habit, sticking to what we know is a human tendency. This will always restrict the pace of change and the implementation of new technology. For new projects, technological change is often incremental, rather than wholesale. For all its potential benefits, I think it will be a while before we see a wide-scale rollout of the IIoT.
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