Industrial networking technologies add value to existing infrastructure

Today’s Web-enabled, data-centric world is full of new technology that can be used to connect things in new ways and share information across previously uncrossable boundaries.
By Alex Marcy March 31, 2016

The landscape of process control systems has completely changed in the last five years. The industry has moved forward from where the state-of-the-art was integrating process data with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and is now pushing into the realm of completely connected, distributed, and always-on systems to devices that didn’t even exist a few years ago.

Regardless of the name—the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industrie 4.0, the digital factory, or the connected enterprise—these developments are here to stay. They present many new opportunities to provide value to existing technologies, but they do require users to update work habits and style of thinking. What worked even five years ago does not necessarily apply anymore. When implemented correctly, though, these new technologies give the companies who use them a deeper understanding of every aspect of their world. 

Tracking, analyzing data from new sources

The world is comfortable with the idea of tracking as much data as possible. New apps are constantly being developed to send notifications, display the data in useful ways, and give everyone information they can use to optimize their lives. Why should the manufacturing world operate any differently?

Energy usage is an example of the new data streams available to users. Web-enabled power meters, gas meters, and flowmeters allow access to get real-time information on water, air, gas, electricity, and steam usage. This information can be combined with utility billing information to understand the most cost-effective times of day to run a process and provide a level of oversight for billing that previously would have required a lot of manual calculation.

Technology from outside of the manufacturing world such as beacons, geo-fencing, and smartphones with global positioning system (GPS) capability can all be implemented at a processing facility to provide a real-time view of where personnel are in the plant. The information can provide location-specific alerts and allow, with appropriate security, control of the process from mobile devices in certain physical locations.

This can have huge impacts on health and safety. In addition to emergency evacuation procedures, meeting points outside the facility, and drills, the safety team can pull up a map of the plant on a phone or tablet and see where everyone is in the plant at any given time. This can save time and resources required to account for everyone in the event of a fire, natural disaster, or other event. 

Integrating devices with existing systems

One of the most difficult hurdles to integrating IIoT-enabled devices is integrating them with existing systems. Through the use of open platform communications (OPC), data distribution service (DDS), and the MQ telemetry transport (MQTT) protocol, integrating new devices is becoming as simple as adding them as a node on an existing network. MQTT is an Internet of Things (IoT) protocol built on a machine-to-machine (M2M) architecture, which makes it easy for a distributed array of devices to communicate with one another to share information about their status and environmental readings.

The increasing number of companies developing IoT-capable devices brings about a growing number of communication protocols. A group of devices made by one manufacturer will likely be able to communicate with each other, but not to devices from another company. By using OPC, DDS, or MQTT as a bridge between an existing system and new devices, this problem is nearly eliminated.

Many existing systems use OPC or DDS, and many of the major software vendors are releasing MQTT communication links to enable compatibility between their systems and IIoT devices. Adding this information brings more context to process control and ERP, and other manufacturing execution system (MES) data adds more value to the system.

Picking the right team

When it comes to handling this oncoming wave of technology, it is important to ensure the right team is involved. In many cases, the new tools are being developed outside of the manufacturing world, and more IT-centric companies are the new experts. Many times these companies do not have specific process experience, making it more important than ever to develop partnerships between internal subject matter experts, system integrators, and information technology (IT) teams. This way nothing gets lost during a project implementation, and everyone is exposed to the technology.

Another route being pursued by some companies to find the most innovative technology is to build relationships with the startup community. Many startups are disrupting existing industries, providing software as a service (SaaS) tools to simplify business operations and deploy new hardware solutions. This isn’t limited to Silicon Valley. For example, Quaker Oats is working with 1871, a tech hub in Chicago, to find startups and work directly with them to find new ways to apply technology to manufacturing and business operations. 

Leveraging information to stay ahead

Staying ahead of the curve with technology is easier than ever. Using the IoT is much cheaper than previous technological leaps because it doesn’t require huge initial investments of capital expenditures and labor to integrate things. The overall impact may not be as large as implementing an MES, but it can provide incremental improvements and will likely continue to proliferate as more companies invest in new technology.

Alex Marcy, P.E., is the owner and President of Corso Systems, a system integration firm based in Chicago, Ill. Corso Systems is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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Key concepts

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) presents many new opportunities to provide value to existing technologies, but they do require users to update work habits and style of thinking.

Integrating new devices is much easier thanks to open platform communications (OPC), data distribution service (DDS), and the MQ telemetry transport (MQTT) protocol.

Using the Internet of Things (IoT) is cheaper than previous technological leaps because it doesn’t require huge initial investments of capital expenditures and labor to integrate things. 

Consider this

What other processes can be improved through the IIoT integrating with other devices?

ONLINE extra

See additional stories from Marcy linked below.