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June 08, 2015

IoT in Factory Automation: Evolution or Revolution?

The Internet of Things has become something of a media buzzword (or phrase) of late – leading many to believe the technology behind it is brand new. Of course, anyone with factory experience can tell you this Internet of Things has been building for some time. But the question remains: Is IoT revolutionary?

In fact, the earliest broad adoption of M2M technology began in the 1980s with wired connections for SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) on the factory floor. Certainly it is this nearly 40 years of history that would lead Mike Granby of Red Lion Controls to remark in a recent issue of Plant Engineering Magazine that “for the Industrial Internet market, the story is one of evolution rather than revolution.”

In contrast, Bosch posits that industry has already been through multiple revolutions, from the early Industrial Revolution begun in the 1800s, to the process revolution introduced by Henry Ford and his famous assembly line, to the earliest personal computers and earliest Internet applications changing the way we live and work in the 1980s. As a result of this thinking, they have named our current state of Industrial and Internet conversion Industry 4.0.

Enter the Industrial Internet Consortium, whose CTO Stephen Mellor recently reviewed the evolution of industry. At the TIA Internet of Things Roundtable in Washington, D.C., he pointed out that each step of the way has been defined by “connectivity in some way, shape, or form” stated “the Industrial Revolution was about power connectivity; the Internet revolution, about information connectivity; and now the Industrial Internet is about predictive analytics and machine connectivity.” Ultimately, all stages have been about “pushing the boundaries.”

Whether we’re in revolution three or four, or a revolution at all, one thing everyone can agree on is that what connectivity “. . . brings to industrial processes is its intrinsic functionality: the ability to monitor movements and measure physical data, and transmit the data to a central facility that processes it into real-time, actionable information on which decisions can be based,” according to ILS Technology, a Telit Company.

But as communications protocols advance, the mix of technologies speaking to, from, and between factory equipment is increasing in complexity – often comprising a mix of IP-based and non-IP data travelling across multiple networks from hard-wired to short-range, license-free wireless to cellular and even satellite.

Of course, to management, “data type doesn’t matter,” according to Alan Tait, CTO of Stream Technologies. “We need to abstract out the complications of multiple networks in order to monetize machine intelligence.” Thankfully that barrier evolution, together with the growth of cloud computing, allows (often for the first time) an opportunity to extend control beyond the four walls of the factory. “The result is a more competitive and more profitable manufacturing company, one that is well placed to meet the challenges and opportunities of today’s dynamic business environment,” according to ILS Technology.

But how do we get there? Like Ford’s technique, we use “building blocks,” says Exosite’s Erik Rorvick. Exosite is focused on delivering a “zero barrier” path to IoT adoption, addressing “changing product strategies,” as well as process. And when it comes to mission-critical factory operations, “security dominates,” according to Rorvick. He’s not alone. In addition to industry-led efforts, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and both houses of the legislature have taken up the issue of IoT security, and when it comes to the integrity of the manufacturing process, industrial energy, and critical infrastructure, there is little doubt as to the reason. That is why the TIA and countless others are working toward standardizing IoT protocols with a particular eye on data governance and information security.

Big advancements are on the way for factory automation thanks to these emerging efforts, but we’re more on the side of revolution than evolution. Granby of Red Lion Controls may be right when he says: “The world is changing, then, but step by step, just as it has always done,” but we think those steps are both getting bigger and coming faster.

For our take on Industry 4.0 and how long it will take before the next “revolution,” let us provide a sneak peek now through a bad joke.

Four guys sat around at the bar, having a leisurely debate on whether the number was 30 billion or 50 billion. When Bill, the bartender said: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Metcalf cried out: “because all his friends were there, and he’s more valuable as part of a group.” Moore said: “because he was smaller and faster.” Shannon said: “capacity, chaps; the coop was running out of space.” Cooper replied: “no no no, dear friends. He was on his way to install a new tower.” The bartender said: “Listen guys, I’ve been retired from Microsoft for a few years but have you all forgotten what I said about change? We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

The value in IoT is the combination of all of the “laws” discussed in the joke above converging.

It starts as a ripple and becomes a tsunami. We believe that in 2030, we’ll have figured out all of this big data/connected device nonsense and will be well along the path to a synchronous, autonomous, and artificially intelligent world.

James Brehm is founder and chief technology evangelist at James Brehm & Associates (www.jbrehm.com).

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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