The future of the data-driven industrial revolution
Heiko Luckhaupt from RS Components looks at the short-, medium- and long-term outlook for data-capable industrial applications and what these new capabilities might deliver in terms of performance gains and transparency
Industry, and indeed the world in general, is in the grip of a data revolution. Nowadays it seems that all manner of everyday objects are gaining the ability to connect to the outside world for one purpose or another – all thanks to the latest and greatest buzzword: the Internet of Things, or IoT.
The reasoning behind this new paradigm in connectivity and the advantages to be gained vary depending who you speak to. For some, it is simply to make your life easier and for others it is a means to harvest and share information from which profiles can be built and better decisions can be made. In an industrial setting, both of these boxes are ticked – and it is this that has led to the idea of Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution.
Connectivity means less button pushing, tighter and easier integration and more machine autonomy, leading to more effective and profitable use of personnel. From a profile-creation perspective, real-time manufacturing and production data is now available to more people and in much greater volumes. And it is the leveraging of this data, especially the way it is analysed, disseminated and deployed, that is having the greatest short- medium- and long-term impact.
If we look at the short term, the creation of manufacturing data is nothing new. Fieldbus systems and simple control signal paths have existed for decades, but it is only in the last few years that the data carried on these communication infrastructures has started to leave its silos and head out into the bigger world. The first and most obvious step was to a PLC or controller and SCADA systems, we then bridged further expansion using technologically agnostic gateway devices, like Siemens IoT 2020 intelligent gateway devices, which bypass the need for a dedicated PLC for pure communication purposes and can exploit data from third-party hardware, such as PLCs and sensors from various different brands. This type of device can be integrated via Ethernet or Serial (via USB adapter) using many available and open protocols. This streamlined ability to collect information then fostered the deeper integration of MRP and ERP suites - with their huge thirst for data and analytics. Finally we are now seeing this data go international as manufacturers leverage the IoT capabilities of Ethernet and, of course, the World Wide Web.
The big questions are ‘what’s next?’ and ‘what will we see in the medium term?’ In a nutshell it is the generation of even more data. But this is not from existing data-capable devices, although they are certainly delivering many more ones and zeroes. Instead, this additional data will come from a new generation of data-capable devices that five years ago were simply dumb, commodity products.
Thanks to the advances in Ethernet technology over the last 10 years – and other complementary fieldbus architectures – there has been a commensurate drop in price for connectivity technology. Couple this to advances in wireless and other non-cabled communication protocols, such as Bluetooth and RFID, and this has led to an explosion in the volume of devices that can now ‘talk the same language’ as the higher-level system above them.
In many cases the middlemen are still there, PLCs are not going anywhere for the time being, but the data paths are much more transparent and far less laggy due to the removal of time consuming translation modules and interfaces. If we were to strip out all the handshaking and security protocols, there is no reason why anyone with an internet connection on one side of the world could not ping a sensor at a bottling plant on the other side.
This brings us neatly onto the question of security. The good news is that developments in hardened industrial security products and software solutions have grown hand-in-hand with the technology that needs it. All of the major automation suppliers already have systems in place to placate even the most paranoid IT personnel, with industrial modems, switches and segregation zones – or no man’s lands – preventing unwarranted intrusions. Indeed, there is now a growing trend to converge enterprise IT with industrial OT (operational technology) and make them complementary disciplines. This is driven by necessity, as the apocryphal brick walls that used to exist between the two need to be breached to gain successful implementation of so-called smart systems and smart factories.
So, what’s next? The reason these data paths are being cleared and more data is being generated is because data is now what makes the industrial world go round. By having access to more pertinent real time data, operational personnel can make much more meaningful decisions and make them much quicker than ever before. But with all this new data there is the possibility of data overload. Again, the automation supplier and the gatekeepers to these data infrastructures have software solutions that can sort the wheat from the chaff and only deliver what the operators need to see at that moment in time.
Looking to the longer term future, if you need to interrogate more data you either have more operators looking at it, or you upgrade your interrogation capabilities – and this means deploying artificial intelligence!
AI is no longer a pipe dream. Quite staggering advances have been made in the last few years, where decisions based on AI analysis have become virtually indistinguishable from those made by their human counterparts. With many of the world’s leading IT companies developing, growing and teaching their AI engines, it won’t be long until AI becomes a regularly used tool in the office space above the shop floor. It will then move to the shop floor and then to the devices. The next step will be a system to control and manage all of your AI solutions. Self-awareness is always mentioned by the doom mongers, but when kept within the confines of a single application or plant, AI will almost certainly form the foundation of the fifth industrial revolution.