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Keith Blodorn is a Director of Program Management at ProSoft Technology, specializing in IIoT and wireless communication solutions. He has worked in the Industrial Automation industry for more than 20 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Rochester and an MBA from Babson College.
Do you consider yourself an Internet of Things Engineer? You should! Think about what the Internet of Things really means. According to Wikipedia, the Internet of Things “is the network of physical objects or ‘things’ embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity to enable objects to exchange data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices…”. As an automation industry veteran, that sounds really familiar. We have been connecting intelligent devices to control networks for decades. We’re pioneers!
So, then, what’s all the fuss about? Looking through automation-oriented magazines and websites, the Internet of Things seems to be all anyone talks about. In the industrial world people call it the “Industrial Internet of Things” or “Industry 4.0” or any number of other names. But fundamentally, what is so different between this new-fangled buzzword and connecting a motor overload relay to a plant communications network like we were doing twenty years ago?
Actually, these are basically the same idea. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is about intelligent devices like overloads, photo eyes, variable frequency drives, or PLCs providing data that we use to make our processes more efficient. IIoT is a name for a trend that has been going on in manufacturing and process control for years – remember “shop floor to top floor”? In fact, U.S. manufacturing productivity has increased 225 percent since 1972, thanks in large part to advances in automation technology. More data from more intelligent sensors allows us to design machines that run faster, with less waste.
Remote Monitoring and Equipment Access
I know, we’ve been connecting to PLCs remotely for as long as most of us can remember! In the old days, remote access meant installing a serial modem connected to a dedicated phone line, so the machines we made remote access-capable were limited to the most critical operations.
What’s changed in the IIoT world is the proliferation of wireless connectivity, especially cellular networks and wireless LAN. By some estimates, 85 percent of the world’s population will be covered by high-speed cellular data networks by 2017 .This has had several effects that change how we should approach remote access and equipment monitoring. First, it’s becoming feasible to gather a LOT more data from remote machines. Since 2008, the average cost per MB of cellular data has dropped 98 percent, from $0.46 per MB to just $0.01 per MB. Now, all that data that we used to deem not important enough to transmit can be made available from our remote sites.
Second, as consumer demand has driven rapid development of Internet- based user interfaces, these same technologies are making remote access to industrial equipment, and especially to process data, more accessible for more people throughout the organization.
Finally, machine builders and control engineers responsible for widely dispersed global operations can build reliable connectivity into their systems without the need for custom infrastructure and integration at the end site. Cellular technology that works on networks worldwide allows these engineers to design their system around a standard remote connection, and reasonably expect that connection to work wherever the machine ends up. For mobile equipment, access is available just about anywhere the equipment goes.
Machine and Process Control
IIoT technology is not just about cellular connections to remote machines. We are seeing new networking approaches to the old requirements of connecting sensors, operator interfaces, controllers and ERP systems that take advantage of the networking technology of today’s Internet. Major automation vendors like Rockwell Automation® and Schneider Electric® have been offering industrial Ethernet connectivity for PLCs and related devices for more than a decade. Industrial Ethernet protocols like ODVA’s EtherNet/IPTM provide the kind of performance required for automation systems, while also enabling interoperability with the massive Internet Protocol-based network infrastructure found in virtually every organization.
In many industrial applications, moving equipment presents a major challenge for communication to the sensors, actuators, and controls on that equipment. Many products exist to try to solve this problem, from slip rings to flexible cable trays to festoons.
However, these hard-wired solutions add cost and complexity while increasing the maintenance requirements for the machine. Meanwhile, we roam around our offices and homes with continuous connection to the Internet – no festoons in sight! Today’s automation engineers are taking advantage of the Internet Protocol-based industrial technologies to design more reliable networks for moving equipment.
One area of automation where IIoT technology is creating new opportunities involves taking the network connection anywhere in the plant. Old systems offered only so many places to “plug in.” Operators had to run the machine from one place – the operator panel. Maintenance had to jot down measurements and observations to enter into the maintenance management system when they got back to the shop. Control engineers could only program PLCs by plugging into the PLC, or to the PLC’s physical network through a proprietary adapter.
In a world where I can set my home thermostat while walking through an airport, we don’t have to live like this! Automation systems are now benefiting from the same “network everywhere” mindset as our home and office environment.
About ProSoft Technology
ProSoft Technology® designs industrial communication solutions that connect automation products seamlessly. ProSoft Technology is a highly diversified, customer intimate, global organization with a focus on quality and ease-of-use. Their products include in-chassis communication modules for PLC/PAC controllers, standalone protocol gateways, and a wide range of robust, field-proven wireless solutions. These are found in applications spanning the industrial marketplace.
With 500 distributors and regional offices in Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, Africa, Latin America and North America, ProSoft Technology provide an unparalleled support to customers worldwide. For more details visit our website: www.prosoft-technology.com
ProSoft is a Strategic Partner of the Collaborative Automation Partner Program. Leveraging ProSoft’s field-proven connectivity expertise, Schneider Electric Industry is able to offer a complete solution for customers.
About Collaborative Automation Partner Program
In order to provide an accurate solution for efficient industry, Schneider Electric needs to be connected with the best experts of the market. The Collaborative Automation Partner Program contributes to build a complete business solution by selecting and integrating Strategic Partner’s solutions to Schneider Electric offer. Today, CAPP portfolio includes almost 50 Strategic Partners spread in 3 categories: Interconnection of Architectures, Application for Solution and Complete Lifecycle Integrated. When partnering with a company, the program selects and tests targeted products from the Strategic Partner that will complete Schneider Electric Industry Business Unit solution. You can find more information about the portfolio on the website (Click here).