Launching industrial Internet programs into the cloud

Cloud service providers shorten the journey to the industrial Internet. Cloud services provide practical, low-cost, and adaptable solutions to address many aspects of the industrial Internet. Benefits can include managed security, cloud data storage, analytics, applications, and improved information delivery (integration).
By Spencer Cramer April 17, 2015

The photo shows the network operations center of a typical provider of cloud services. Courtesy: ei3 Corp.It’s exciting to think about the enormous business opportunities created by industrial Internet. However, harnessing its value on the plant floor necessitates managing many diverse details. One reason why many promising industrial Internet programs never get implemented or reach the market is because there is simply too much technology that must be addressed before the program can be launched.

Leveraging the cloud

To shorten the journey to successful industrial Internet programs, many organizations are turning to cloud service providers for help. Cloud services provide practical, low-cost, and adaptable solutions to address many aspects of the industrial Internet (see Figure 1). For this discussion, the "cloud" is the delivery of IT capability using remote infrastructure accessed via the Internet; "cloud services" provide access to IT services similar to those delivered from equipment owned by the user’s organization. Companies that specialize in delivering industrial Internet services through the cloud typically provide solutions that organizations use to build their industrial Internet programs, the most common of which include managed security, cloud data storage, analytics, applications, and information delivery (integration).

Managed security: The stakes are high when a plant floor connects to the Internet. Data coming from machines and processes are considered top secret, and access to the devices that control machines absolutely must be strictly limited to authorized personnel. There are many reasons to limit access to control devices—the most important of which is safety.

Every industrial Internet program should start with a well-designed and maintained Internet security framework that incorporates security policies, procedures, standards, and guidelines. Internet security frameworks require constant attention to identify and respond to vulnerabilities and threats as they are identified. Working with a team with experience in providing solutions to this dynamic requirement is one reason why many organizations see the value of using a skilled cloud service provider to manage their security requirements. Further, working with a cloud service provider with a proven track record of providing security solutions tailored for industrial Internet programs gives the organization an even bigger advantage (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Internet security appliances, such as the device in the photo, are used for managed security services specific to industrial Internet applications. Courtesy: ei3 Corp.For example, many industrial machine suppliers recommend that their customers agree to allow technicians to have remote access to equipment so the machine builder can deliver remote troubleshooting and support. This remote support is usually made possible by using a virtual private network, or VPN, to connect machines to programming software on a technician’s PC. These remote support devices can prevent substantial downtime by giving technicians fast access to equipment that controls machines and processes. But the daunting prospect of unauthorized access through an exploited system vulnerability causes many machine owners to block remote support access. This creates a dilemma for the machine builder as well as the owner because the value proposition of increased uptime that comes with remote support is too high to ignore.

How can manufacturing organizations allow remote access and benefit from remote support while maintaining a high degree of security? One way is to rely on a company that specializes in cloud services to manage security. Using a third party to provide a security framework creates advantages for both manufacturers and machine OEMs. With solutions tailored to be delivered by machine OEMs, manufacturers are assured that no access will occur without their consent and knowledge. The machine OEMs can appreciate granular access control with an audit trail and transparent reporting features. In addition, when a security framework is in place, even greater benefits for the manufacturer can be delivered, such as cloud data storage. 

Cloud data storage: Critical data can be found everywhere on the typical manufacturing plant floor. The diversity of these data makes it a daunting task for manufacturers to design and maintain a comprehensive data backup and recovery solution. Cloud data storage services can address this need by using a secure network connection to access plant floor devices and remotely monitor values and make periodic program backups. In a cloud-based solution, data are stored off-site in compliance with appropriate regulations and best practices for data backup and recovery programs.

There are many types of critical plant floor data, such as machine programs and the code that runs in the motion controllers, PLCs, and HMI devices. When any of these devices fails, it’s invaluable to have a recent copy available from a secure website. Some machines run specialized setups, batches, or recipes, from files stored in an HMI, CNC, or PC on the plant floor. To avoid losing the latest and most effective program file, it’s considered a best practice to have them automatically uploaded and protected.

Another example of critical data is with key process parameters required by compliance standards. These monitored parameters can be stored on digital chart recorders or on local data historians, but an offsite backup can bring peace of mind knowing that these values will not be lost. With the right data collection technology in place, a cloud database can monitor and store production information, downtime codes, quality test results, tool-and-die wear profiles, consumable usage, and other dynamic machine data. Some industrial Internet specialty cloud service companies have complete solutions that include the agents and software tools necessary to acquire data from machines and other plant floor equipment.

After secure access for data storage is set up, the cloud services provider ensures that the data itself are secure, private, protected, and backed up. When a plant floor goes online, the amount of stored data grows quickly, and the industrial Internet challenge shifts from acquiring and storing data to becoming one of big data analysis. 

Analytics: Analytics transform large sets of data into actionable information. Many industrial Internet services create value by performing complex analysis of data coming from remotely monitored equipment. Because of the size of the data used and scalability needs of multiple users across multiple platforms, these analytics are best performed in the cloud. Cloud servers have the computing power necessary to analyze vast streams of data to compute results using complex algorithms. Different analytics are applied to meet the needs of different plant floor value streams. Analytical processing can determine values for predictive failure points, conditional alerts, statistical process controls, and machine key performance indicators (KPIs). Examples of these value streams include measuring quality, tracking production, and assisting maintenance.

One example is monitoring quality inspection devices to track production tolerances of critical to quality parameters (CTQs). If monitored quality test results for CTQs start to change, then analytics can be applied to other machine parameters to search for a correlation. When a correlative parameter is found, it becomes defined as a related-to-quality parameter. To maintain optimum process conditions, these related parameters are then closely watched using real-time statistical process control methods.

Another good application of cloud analytics is machine production monitoring. Using cloud data services, it is possible to monitor a machine’s production speed in real time. If the monitored machine data include production information-for example, production speeds, stop times, and quality results—then it is possible to analyze the data to create valuable KPIs, such as real-time machine overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Having a consistently evaluated, real-time OEE value available is very helpful to Lean manufacturing practitioners who use this information to guide operational efficiency.

Monitored equipment data can also be processed by cloud-based analytics to proactively detect imminent part failure. For example, accelerometers can be attached to machines to gather equipment vibration data, which can be sent to the cloud data storage. By using powerful computers to analyze these streams of vibration data, it is possible to apply sophisticated calculations and filters to find root problems early enough to take action before costly failures occur. Proactive failure detection can save manufacturers a lot of money through reduced downtime and by avoiding catastrophic equipment damage.

Analytics create value by converting data into actionable information. Cloud applications create a packaged user experience that delivers knowledge based on the monitored machine data and computed information. 

Applications: Cloud-based applications are also known as software-as-a-service (SaaS). This method of delivering software has been steadily growing in popularity because organizations know that SaaS allows them to reap the benefits of an application without having to take the steps to set up an in-house IT infrastructure. Cloud applications for the industrial Internet deliver knowledge based on the remotely monitored data and analytically produced information. Most industrial Internet applications have a defined mission to create value by fulfilling a specific, envisioned business value proposition. The value and return on investment of such applications can be dramatically increased by partnering with an experienced industrial Internet cloud service provider. These companies have the skills, knowledge, and experience to add value by contributing to the application’s architecture, design, development, and hosting.

There are already countless industrial Internet applications available to meet specific needs. Examples include managing and dispatching alerts, viewing monitored data, managing quality, and tracking production. In a typical organization, these applications are used by employees in many different departments including operations, quality, engineering, maintenance, and management. The applications are delivered through the Internet, thereby making it possible for users to benefit from real-time plant floor data, regardless of their location. Plant managers can use these applications to view machine production from their smartphone to see how things are running. Shift supervisors can get a report e-mailed at the end of their shift showing production metrics for the shift and stop reasons. Maintenance technicians and production supervisors can receive alerts when machine consumable parts are ready for replacement. Six Sigma engineers can download sets of machine engineering parameters from Web pages for their experiment without having to access local data historians. These different users also have very diverse preferences for the way their information is delivered. 

Information delivery: To meet the application needs of the diverse users, it becomes all too important to have a great degree of flexibility in the access of information. The applications must be supported on a wide range of computing devices including tablets and smartphones. In addition to being compatible with a large range of Web browsers (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and others), it’s important that the applications can deliver information directly to tablets and smartphones through native mobile applications (iPad, iPhone, and Android devices).

In addition, industrial Internet information must be delivered to both users and systems. A cloud service provider offers multiple delivery options that are in step with the ever-changing landscape of evolving operating systems, browser variations, and other changes. Users must have the information they need on the device they prefer, while business software and enterprise computing platforms must be served data in formats that they can easily read.

Integration between the industrial Internet applications and these enterprise systems is achieved by using Web standards. The preferred solution is for cloud service providers to deliver information to systems by using application programming interfaces (APIs). API methods can be defined to provide data for many different purposes. For example, information can be sent directly to business systems to read machine production values, job status, stop codes, and OEE values. The same APIs can be used to create "mash-ups" of data that combine remotely monitored data and information from other sources. A plant technician familiar with standard Web HTML code can use the API to program a local machine display or performance board. This performance board can be configured to run on a conventional Web TV connected to the Internet, and source real-time machine data directly from the cloud. If desired, the machine performance board can show the machine status, speed of production, and a recent history of shift performance. 

Cloud scalability

When the benefits of an industrial Internet program are understood, the next question that most organizations ask is, "How fast can I scale up?" Scalability is best achieved by taking advantage of the benefits in using a cloud solution. The cloud service provider will use virtualization, storage as a service, co-location, and other techniques to provide scalable services for securely delivering data, analytics, and applications.

Multiple benefits

The organization that uses a cloud service provider for its industrial Internet program stands to benefit by saving time, saving money, keeping up to date, and staying focused. The cloud saves time because the best cloud service providers use a multi-tenancy environment tailored for industrial Internet programs. They can bring machine OEMs and their customers on board in mere weeks or months because adding another organization does not require any additional programming. Time is often a critical factor, especially when the goal of an organization’s industrial Internet program is to achieve a first-to-market advantage. In addition to saving time, risk is reduced because the cloud service provider has experience delivering similar solutions. The cloud saves money because the cloud service provider spreads its costs across large pools of services provided to many users. This large pool of existing customers means that services can be provided at a lower cost than is possible for even large OEMs to achieve.

The cloud service provider stays current with the rapidly evolving requirements of technology, including security, operating systems, smartphones, and other important details. Organizations that use these providers automatically stay up-to-date without additional maintenance cost or resources to support the system.

Perhaps the most important benefit of partnering with an experienced cloud service provider is the ability for the user’s organization to stay focused on what’s important to its company. Putting an industrial Internet program together is a large and complex undertaking. By partnering with an experienced cloud service provider, an organization accesses experience while staying focused on its core competencies.

Each of these benefits makes a compelling case to partner with a cloud service provider for the industrial Internet. When these benefits are combined, it becomes very clear that the shortest path to the successful creation of an industrial Internet program is having services delivered from the cloud.

Spencer Cramer is president and CEO of ei3 in Montvale, N.J. He founded ei3 in 1999 with the vision to monitor machines through the Internet. The company’s portfolio of SaaS applications deliver performance benchmarking, real-time monitoring, and predictive analytics. Today, ei3 applications are used at thousands of sites worldwide. Cramer is a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and OMAC. He has a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia.

About OMAC

When manufacturers come together to share best practices, the whole industry benefits. The Organization for Machine Automation and Control (OMAC) was formed to meet this purpose and to help manufacturers work together to find new and innovative ways to be successful in their production operations. OMAC brought together leading manufacturers representing end-user manufacturers, OEM machine builders, system integrators, technology providers, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to address issues that affect global manufacturing. OMAC’s two working groups, Packaging and Machine Tool, focus on producing industry consensus guidelines that help manufacturers reduce their delivery times, be more efficient with available resources, and increase profitability. OMAC is a charter member of the Automation Federation.

OMAC was formed in 1994 as the Open Modular Architecture Controls User’s Group to provide an organization for companies to work together toward these goals:

  • Collectively derive common solutions for technical and nontechnical issues in the development, implementation, and commercialization of open, modular-architecture control technologies
  • Promote open, modular-architecture control development among control technology providers and adoption among end users, OEMs, and system integrators
  • Act as a repository for open, modular-architecture control requirements and operating experience from users, software developers, hardware builders, and OEMs in manufacturing applications
  • Facilitate the accelerated development and convergence of industry- and government-developed technology guidelines to a single set that satisfies common-use requirements
  • Collaborate with user groups around the world in pursuit of common international technology guidelines.

The organization changed its name to Organization for Machine Automation and Control in 2008 to better reflect the broader mission and scope of its ongoing activities.

This article appears in the Applied Automation supplement for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering

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