Internet of Things: industry opportunities

01 September 2015

Ulrich Wallenhorst, chief technology officer of TE Connectivity's Industrial business unit, comments on how the Internet of Things is driving industry forward. 

What is often referred to as Industry 4.0 is inextricably linked with another current buzzword, IoT, or the Internet of Things and cloud pioneers such as Google, Amazon or also Microsoft are dictating the way forward in this regard. Aided by technical progress, they have succeeded in making computing power and storage space increasingly more affordable to the point that it has become a negligible cost factor. 

This development is having a huge impact on industry. Because computing power is effectively available free of charge, hardware components are being equipped with more powerful computing capabilities. Examples of this include automation lines and workpiece carriers with integrated microchips. In short, low-tech hardware is getting smarter!  

Another effect of the influence of the IoT and its protagonists across industry can be seen in an acceleration in developments. Innovations are no longer being spawned in cycles of decades, but rather years or even months. Nevertheless, it is unlikely there will be full-scale adaptation to the pace of change in the cloud. Ultimately, this is because complex hardware is still used in production. A production line can easily cost €200 million and so will not be replaced in the short term. 

IoT techniques will also influence interaction between man and machine – the human machine interface (HMI). Control directly at the machine will increasingly start to play a reduced role, potentially being replaced by an electronic representation of the entire value chain, where bottlenecks or the need for human action, for example, can be made visible. 

A touchscreen that visualises the entire factory could be envisaged in this scenario. Such a system would ideally be so easy to use that it would not necessarily have to be operated by a specialist. Thinking one step ahead, man could be completely replaced as the connecting link, with the intelligence integrated in the hardware assuming the role of the HMI. The handshake is simply the protocol transition from one system to another, with analysis and initiation of an action then being handled by software in conjunction with hardware. 

Such communication between individual elements in the production environment, for example, between sensors and actuators with integrated intelligence, as well as the facility to communicate, are changing production both in terms of logic and design. The storage part of the PLC becomes obsolete as soon as real-time communication is available throughout the entire factory. This is because there is then no further need for temporary storage. This logically gives rise to restructuring. To date, the PLC has been housed centrally in the control cabinet, but this is set to change. Control is migrating to localised, and intelligence to decentralised areas. This means that storage and control intelligence is shifting, for example, to the cloud.

Security advantages 
But what are the risks of Industry 4.0? Every advance in automation and every increase in complexity naturally brings new security risks. However, security risks can also be eliminated from the outset by avoiding HMI actions. Software algorithms can also increase security throughout the system through cross-check and redundancy functions. As with every change, risks therefore arise if errors are made in implementation. To counteract this, however, Industry 4.0 offers excellent opportunities to minimise the risks.

Security, however, will not be the argument that helps Industry 4.0 achieve its breakthrough. This will be down to its basic advantages which can be summed up as follows – Savings… everything becomes cheaper! 

Real-time communication in production and the greater number of integrated sensors will lead to faster response times, boosting efficiency – both in terms of energy and costs. Proactive condition monitoring means avoiding any kind of waste, for example, through avoiding downtimes. 

Despite these advantages, there are still challenges to be faced. Above all the resistance of the legacy techniques embedded deep in industry. It is a well-known fact that some systems have been in operation for 20 years, and it will take another 30 years before particularly resistant areas see change to the same extent that parts of factory automation are already seeing today.  

Development is also being slowed by people, structures and rules, regulations and laws. Competence is an extremely important keyword. Humans have to be able to master Industry 4.0, and this development is shifting fields of competence. Programmers will need to master automation techniques using object-oriented approaches. The shift in competencies will not only impact the field of development, but also product management and production itself and it is also possible that this will have an even greater effect on the rate of development than that posed by industry's hardware legacy. 

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