The Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming everyday life and promises to revolutionize industry. Forecasters view this technology for the manufacturing sector, the industrial Internet of things (IIoT), as a key impetus for growth and productivity in the coming decade, adding US$14.2 trillion to the global economy by 2030.
The IIoT could be the most momentous development in automation systems since the introduction of the microprocessor-based distributed control system (DCS). By empowering businesses to leverage immense amounts of data generated by modern automation solutions, the potential uses and benefits are numerous. They range from enhancing data collection and improved remote monitoring, diagnostic and asset management capabilities, to reducing configuration and commissioning.
However, the potential of billions of sensors and other devices already in place must be harnessed by businesses, as economic benefits from IIoT adoption are not guaranteed. One barrier to benefits is that they can’t be realized until IIoT technology is effectively applied. Other obstacles include interoperability, legacy equipment, security and the lack of a clearly defined return on investment (ROI). At times, these issues can influence operators to embrace simplicity and avoid connecting devices. This is unnecessary as challenges to IIoT adoption can be overcome with the right technology partners. Plus, as the solutions are standardized they become increasingly cost effective.
Two crucial elements of the IIoT are Internet connectivity and Internet-based cloud computing. These components augment the performance of traditional control systems by increasing the number of connected devices and remote and mobile users. They also expand the volume of stored data and the computing capabilities to do so while reducing costs of additional computer hardware. Connectivity complexity and costs are removed by the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, which needs only the Internet protocol (IP) server address.
These benefits are tied to challenges presented by the IIoT. One of great importance is the security in industrial control systems. Potential vulnerabilities of SCADA systems have been acknowledged since the attack of the Stuxnet worm in 2010. Concerns over increasing connectivity and access to SCADA systems via the IIoT are justified. Other challenges involve mobile and remote users’ coordinated collaboration, transforming increased volumes of data into actionable intelligence, and the impact of the IIoT on legacy architectures, devices and systems.
Advancements have been achieved that allow industrial control system users to benefit from the IIoT while curbing the risks. For example, manufacturers are embedding the OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) protocol in their devices, so products easily interconnect and share data in effective ways. Traditional OPC servers can communicate with a new UA client or a human-machine interface (HMI), allowing operators to continue using a current system and newly added UA-enabled devices. Security risks are controlled with a suitable architecture, by ensuring automation system functionality is either in a hardened edge computing environment (with existing cyber security protections) or in the cloud (where tight access control and communications security are built-in).
But the greatest indicator of the success of an IIoT deployment will be what is done with the data. It must be easily accessible by and useful to users. Templating can organize important information into a useable format, and big data analytics could transform operations through raw data analysis for patterns and correlations identified from past incidents and not relying on models.
Making sense of the data
After the data is interpreted and organized, it must reach the right people and bring them together where input is needed. With the IIoT, users with mobile devices can run sophisticated HMIs to manage and make sense of the data. Mobile device applications can send real-time plant performance notifications tailored to the role of the recipient. These applications also connect users, devices and instruments at the enterprise level to enable faster and better decisions and coordinated action.
Limits to the potential of the Industrial Internet of Things are disappearing. As the IIoT technology continues to develop, the challenges to its adoption are being conquered. Costs are reduced as the solutions are standardized, and the scope of benefits continues to grow.