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A modular computing platform for networking

A modular computing platform for networking

A MICA (Modular Industrial Computing Architecture) is a modular computing platform made from open hardware and software components. Unlike single-board computers such as the Raspberry Pi, the MICA circuit board is divided into three parts, one of which can be customised. The form factor and degree of protection remain unchanged after hardware adjustments.

Software applications run in virtual, Linux-based containers (virtual machines) which contain all the necessary libraries and drivers for the respective application. This means that there are no more problems with package dependencies and incompatibilities.

MICA’s open source approach permits the user to choose the programming language and development environment. Its architecture makes it possible to temporarily save, evaluate and process data in the immediate vicinity of machinery and equipment. The modular open platform means that the system can be customised with custom hardware, software and interfaces - to suit users’ individual requirements for Integrated Industry applications.

With dimensions of 13?8?3.5cm, MICA is extremely compact and fits on the DIN rail in the electrical cabinet. It can also be installed discreetly and directly at the machine or facility. To optimise network connectivity, the front bezel can be customised with the proper connectors to fit the user’s application. The system is designed for harsh industrial and railway environments. It has no fan and is maintenance-free. It can be used in metallic environments and is resistant to dust, moisture (to IP67) and temperature fluctuations. Remote servicing can be performed with a web browser.

MICA features a powerful 1GHz ARM processor, 1Gbyte of RAM and 4Gbyte of eMMC flash memory (expandable up to 32Gbyte on a micro-SD card). Harting’s virtual industry computing technology enables multiple programs to run in parallel within virtual containers. The containers run in individual ╥sandboxes╙, thereby isolating and securing the different components and applications from one another. The touch-optimised interface for end users and administrators is implemented entirely in HTML5 and JavaScript. It can be customised by developers without any special tools.

The one-time investment for MICA is significantly lower than for complete industrial PCs. There are no licensing or leasing fees. The open development environment allows inexpensive prototyping and development, even for multiple projects. The power consumption for the base version is less than 5W. Since the market launch of the MICA in 2016, many of Harting’s customers and partners have completed projects that exchange data over existing Ethernet and USB interfaces. With the new Industrial Ethernet variants, it is possible to directly integrate MICA into production networks.

Many industrial companies have installed their own complex automation solutions using real-time networks such as EtherCAT, Profinet or Ethernet/IP. In Industry 4.0 it is necessary to capture more and more relevant data from these systems and pass the data on to the business level via an ERP system or the Cloud, for example. Both for reasons of cost and to maintain the reliability of the automation network, in virtually all cases it is not possible to build this concept into the real-time network via additional PLCs.

MICA offers a cost effective and minimally invasive option to collect data ╥on the fly╙, as well as to extract business-critical data. In such applications, it is connected to an existing network as a client via standard bus systems and cables (for example, D-coded M12 for EtherCAT). New variants of MICA are equipped with built-in EtherCAT, Profinet and Ethernet/IP function boards. The software environment, developed in collaboration with HMS Industrial Networks, allows these MICA units to be integrated with standard PLC programming environments such as Beckhoff TwinCAT.

On the MICA side, the data are available in a container and can be processed with all the tools present on the MICA. For example, the data could be picked up from the EtherCAT container using JSON and then sent via MQTT or OPC-UA to a Microsoft Azure or SAP Hana Cloud. Alternatively, it is possible to store data in a MySQL database container on the MICA and then process it with the R statistical language on the MICA itself (both MySQL and R for MICA are available free from Harting). There is even the possibility of programming the workflow on the MICA graphically using Node-RED.

The option to pre-process data on the MICA is particularly significant: even simple manufacturing facilities can generate multiple gigabytes of data in the course of a day, and relaying this directly to the ERP risks overwhelming both the network and the ERP. With the MICA, this data stream can be buffered directly on the machine and edited down to just the business-critical information using proven tools from the IT world. This cuts costs and radically simplifies the overall solution.

The introduction of terms like EtherCAT, PROFINET, MQTT and OPC UA shows that anyone who wants to converse in the language of the fourth industrial revolution must be fluent in IoT (Internet of Things) terminology. The Node-RED function on the MICA now enables the simple visual ╥wiring╙ of communication networks and the integration processes of sensors and controls to back-end systems and the Cloud.

Industry 4.0 embodies the increasingly comprehensive networking of the production environment, from individual sensors all the way to the Cloud. When it comes to the integration of digital components, the use of a large variety of heterogeneous data models and communication protocols poses a major challenge.

In order to realise cross-level system integration, software tools are needed which permit the orchestration of relevant components of the integration process which can be flexibly enhanced to meet new requirements.

Using Node-RED, IBM has developed an open source software tool suitable for the design and integration of modern IoT architectures. Node-RED permits digital components to be 'wired' by creating workflows in the visual editor, whereby the programming effort when developing integration processes can be enormously reduced. Node-RED is based on the Node.js programming language, which enjoys great popularity in IoT projects in particular thanks to more than 250,000 available packages and the active open source community.

On the MICA equipped with Node-RED and other available packages, new opportunities arise for the flexible and efficient development of integration solutions for data acquisition and pre-processing of sensor and control data in back-end systems and in the Cloud.

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