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Interconnectivity and data: laying foundations for the IIoT

23 February 2016

Darek Kominek, senior product marketing manager at Matrikon (Honeywell Process Solutions), discusses the importance of taking a holistic approach to capitalise on the benefits of the IIoT.

We are hearing a great deal about the potential of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), with digitally-connected objects sharing information with each other and with Internet-based clouds. This leap in visibility and data sharing within and between companies promises to transform the way we live and work. 

According to a forecast from global provider of market intelligence, IDC, the global market for IoT related business and technologies is projected to reach $7.1 trillion by 2020, while estimates on the number of devices that will be part of the IoT by the same year range from 25 billion, predicted by Gartner, to a mind-boggling 200 billion, according to Intel.

What seems to be discussed less is that a great number of these connected devices will be in industrial operations – a network of sensors, cameras, automated robotics and controllers in a factory, or interlinked monitoring equipment, pumps, valves and alarms within a refinery – all talking to one another. This Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will can help optimise how devices work together, adapting to conditions throughout one or more sites to deliver optimum performance, while simultaneously generating and gathering huge volumes of useful data which, analysed in aggregate, will help optimise how individual businesses run and make new, hybrid joint business services possible. Consequently, the IIoT is expected to transform not only the manufacturing industry, but the entire global economy. One estimate, based on an Accenture report issued earlier this year, estimated that this technology could add $14.2 trillion to the world economy over the next 15 years.

However, only those businesses that take a holistic approach to capitalising on the IIoT’s potential will truly benefit. It needs to be used as a catalyst for fundamental change in the way companies operate and how individuals go about their daily work.

Take, for example, traditional asset models, in which businesses buy equipment with a warranty insuring against failure within a particular period and supported by scheduled maintenance. The ability to share and analyse more data from deeper within the shop floor – for example, detecting the real-time rise in temperature of lubricants as a sign of increased friction on bearings – can already move the business toward condition-based maintenance, helping it avoid costly unscheduled downtime. 

Likewise, IIoT-based systems have the potential to radically decentralise decision-making within plants with high-level information and context no longer restricted to the central control room. This argues for a shift from task-based workers to value-finding workers, with technology augmenting their experience rather than replacing them – simultaneously giving workers deeper situational awareness about the work they are doing in their area while providing a broader context into how they are affecting the rest of the plant and its processes.

The connectivity challenge
Even before concerns over data acquisition arise, a central communications challenge is an obstacle to making the IIoT a reality. The ‘things’ making up the IIoT will need to ‘talk’ to one another and in order to do so need a common language to exchange their context-rich data in meaningful ways. In order to achieve this, many are turning to OPC UA, a robust, platform-independent communications standard. 

Identified as a key enabler of the Industrie 4.0 movement, OPC UA runs on anything from servers to networked sensors, on mainstream OSs such as Linux and Microsoft Windows to embedded Linux, real time operating systems (RTOSs) or even devices without any OS. OPC UA enables the connectivity and data-sharing between the devices and systems that provide the deep shop floor visibility that truly digital enterprises need. 

In preparation for fulfilling the vision of the IIoT, manufacturers are future-proofing technology by embedding OPC UA in all types of devices, ranging from small networked sensors to full-blown controllers, with each connected device helping to move the IIoT revolution forward by expanding the data-sharing space. 

Data demands
Alongside the rise of the IIoT, a related growth in the volume, availability and importance of data is occurring. As more devices become connected and interlinked, the amount of information they produce increases, as does the ability to undertake action based on this data. Taking such information from many sources and contextualising it, and then analysing the mass of information to unearth insights about the way a plant is running and how operations could be improved, is an example of big data use. 

The first stage in this process is effectively capturing data, something operators currently do with varying degrees of success. Data is in many ways the fuel of our technological age, and as in a refinery, where product losses must be avoided at all costs, any leakage of data must also be mitigated. 

Capturing data at the source, at local or remote locations in case data connectivity is lost with a central historian is one part of the solution. A Desktop Historian is a superb tool in this regard, because it is focused on easy setup, easy data capture, and secure local access. A Historian is used for remote and small plant data capture, allowing people to work with the data locally and acting as a store-and-forward solution in the event that data connectivity is lost with a central historian. It is, therefore, an ideal ‘starter’ tool when it comes to capturing data and is capable of handling capture needs ranging from a few items to tens of thousands of data points per instance. Whether it is leveraging big data or local archived data, most data-led transformation comes from analysing historical performance. Therefore, it is important to adopt the use of historians that capture data in a common format to ensure the broadest range of applications can consume it.

Given the scale of changes needed to fully implement the IIoT and reap the benefits it has to offer, it will take some time for companies to make all the necessary infrastructure transitions. A good first step on this path to the IIoT vision is to start to migrate to devices and applications with native OPC UA connectivity and to set up proper data archiving mechanisms. This will help ensure that a strong foundation is in place before further steps toward the full IIoT vision are taken. While there is still time for companies to start making this transition, the pace of IIoT related changes is accelerating – meaning companies that want to be competitive in the near future should start preparing sooner than later. 

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