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Making the most of the IIoT

01 November 2016

Martin Jones, general manager at Moxa Europe, discusses the challenges and opportunities that the IIoT presents for the control engineer.

It is important to understand how the Industrial Internet of Things (IioT) being promoted today actually differs from what has been done in the past. A control engineer has quite clear tasks – and he surely sees the IIoT in the same areas. It supports (remote) monitoring and control as well as data analysis that helps him to model and predict. So what´s really behind the hype?

Many applications have been pretty close to what we now call the IIoT. For example centralised application servers that reduce maintenance and infrastructure costs which were difficult to install, usually implemented at large scale, and therefore were expensive so had an unpredictable return on investment. If we combine today’s advances such as sensing and measurement, communication network infrastructure, or processing power, we generate a different volume of usage. This opens up new perspectives and, most of all, it decreases costs, thereby enhancing effectiveness and ROI. 

IIoT-ready applications
For IIoT applications, the value is in the consolidated data. Before the data can be used for modelling and prediction purposes however, it must be extracted from thousands of industrial sensors and machines. This is often a cumbersome and time-consuming task, not to mention a drain on control engineering resources. 
To ensure that the data necessary for optimising control engineering is based on the most up-to-date information (short-term as well as in the long run), an integrated data acquisition and device management platform designed for large-scale, IIoT applications can be helpful. But every hardware solution must be complemented by an adequate set of software solutions, so that the development of applications that facilitate remote device management and data acquisition can be facilitated. Control engineers also benefit from the fast and easy integration of Modbus communications, data acquisition, data processing, wireless networking, and device management so that they can make full use of the IIoT´s benefits, and focus on their applications instead of on complex integrations. The main challenges include: 

Complex integration of devices for mass deployment in the IioT: A large-scale plant implies the integration and control of maybe thousands of devices. This is time-consuming and not always easy for a control engineer – different devices use different communication protocols, and only if their integration runs smoothly can a system can be well managed. This can be overcome by companies writing their own programs to ensure that their devices communicate with each other. However, this is a complex and costly and could prolong the installation process, so is not an ideal choice. Moxa's ThingsPro Suite is designed to enable the integration of data acquisition and wireless management in a few simple steps. 

Maintaining uptime in unstaffed locations: In distributed systems, control engineers often have to travel to ensure optimal operability and minimise downtime. In a typical Industrial IoT environment, the computing systems at the edge of the network are often located at unstaffed or remote sites, which make troubleshooting, maintenance, and ensuring system uptime extremely difficult and expensive. A proactive self-maintenance utility can help engineers maintain remote systems and minimise system downtime from a central location, saving time and effort for other tasks.

Keeping valuable business data secure: Control engineers today are confronted with security issues. As they keep up with the Industrial IoT trend and enjoy the benefits of valuable data transmission between devices, servers and databases, they are aware that privacy is a serious concern and industrial systems must be secure to prevent unauthorised access. 

The requirements and challenges of IIoT systems will vary depending on the industry or application. Control engineers who develop data acquisition and asset management software programs on their own database may need to transfer field data directly into the remote database. Moreover, for example, many people in the automation industry are knowledgeable about industrial protocols such as Modbus, but they are not familiar with Information Technology and 4G LTE. So they will need assistance in connecting their field devices to a wide area network (WAN) by a device or software which will handle the conversion work for them. 

While many companies are focused on extracting value from the big data analytics delivered by IIoT, they are also finding that a fundamental critical success factor can be attributed to their ability to effectively connect/communicate with their industrial assets and sensors. By leveraging its core competencies, Moxa is focused on enabling IIoT connectivity to legacy equipment too. According to the Industrial Internet Consortium’s Industrial Internet Reference Architecture, technology which facilitates transporting data from the edge tier to the platform tier in a reliable and secure manner are vital to overall implementation success. While different vertical markets have different preferences for industry protocols or hardware/software suppliers, the main project objectives/goals – predictive maintenance, increased productivity and improved safety – remain fairly similar across markets. Being flexible enough to support different platform preferences is vital to support multiple industry requirements and compatibility with OPC-UA, MQTT and traditional fieldbus protocols is important to ensure interoperability. Finally, Consideration of the various cloud platforms various cloud platforms also becomes a factor to ensure seamless compatibility. 

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