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Manufacturing embraces the Industrial Internet of Things

An expert has seen what tomorrow's factory will look like and he believes the Industrial Internet of Things will be its eyes and ears.

The high level of interest and hype surrounding the Internet of Things is driven by the proliferation of everyday objects with an Internet connection -- everything from kitchen appliances and household electronics to clothing, vehicles and retail goods. This transition is truly amazing, and developing faster than anyone could have imagined. But in the world of manufacturing, our own version of IoT, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), is a logical extension of automation and connectivity that has been a part of the plant environment for decades, primarily in the area known as machine-to-machine (M2M) communication.

The IIoT movement is, of course, growing and expanding at least as fast as the Internet of Things (IoT) in the outside world because smart devices and connected sensors are proliferating in the plant as well. But the transition from M2M and plant networking to full IIoT presents interesting challenges that manufacturers must address before the technology gets out of hand and threatens, rather than enhances, the benefits that it promises to provide.

The connected factory as it exists today is a relatively closed environment, designed to communicate within the plant network and not necessarily with the outside world, with or through the Internet. Most companies are quite comfortable with that; the Internet can be a scary and threatening place. So one of the first decisions companies face when considering IIoT is whether the benefits are sufficient to overcome the risk of making all that detailed company information accessible through the Internet and leaving internal systems vulnerable to hacking, viruses and destructive malware. Despite the fact that Stuxnet was developed and deployed with the best intentions, its very existence is a wake-up call for any company thinking of opening internal systems up to the Internet.

It's conceivable that you can obtain many of the benefits of IIoT without that outside connection. Upgrading or changing the internal network to Internet Protocol (if not already TCP/IP compatible) should allow a company to install and use the new devices and sensors in an internal IIoT and that may be perfectly adequate.

Taking advantage of IIoT

Why would a company want to enable the Internet connection? A connection to the Internet allows access to IIoT data and supporting applications from virtually any device, any time, from any place in the world. Functional managers can check on specific machines, schedules, inventories, etc. at any time, in full detail, no matter where they are. Executives can drill down to study situations and analyze performance and results when at home or on the go. More importantly, perhaps, IIoT with Internet connectivity can provide hands-on visibility and control capabilities for remote locations, subcontracted manufacturing plants or suppliers' factories.

Although much intra-factory communications takes place over an Ethernet network, many existing devices use proprietary protocols and many are not Internet enabled. Can these existing devices play a role in a connected IIoT enterprise? The short answer is maybe -- with limitations. The bigger question is whether they all have to be replaced by fully Internet-enabled IIoT devices. Again, the answer is not a simple yes or no.

Strategy and tactics for implementing IIoT must align with a company's goals and concerns. An all-in commitment means the eventual replacement of non-compliant controllers and devices so that all detailed data is available to the network and authorized remote users. This strategy requires the most attention to security and access control and the most vigilance on a continuing basis. It's possible that some of the existing equipment can be upgraded or modified to fit in with an IIoT implementation and not have to be replaced.

Taking a part-way approach to IIoT

A part-way strategy leaves more options for continued use of some or all the incumbent equipment and also may alleviate some security concerns. The existing internal network can be preserved and even enhanced with the addition of more sensors and devices while remaining a closed system not attached to the Internet. This is arguably a corruption of the IIoT ideal but can be a practical approach to additional tracking and visibility. IIoT-like data management and analytics can be a part of the enhanced internal network structure so many of the IIoT benefits become available, just not from remote access. This approach provides what technologists call an "air gap" that separates internal data and controls from direct connection to the Internet, and is commonly done for security reasons. In this case, the motivation goes beyond security to include practical and monetary considerations as well.

This part-way strategy doesn't fall under the definition of IIoT and certainly doesn't deliver the "anytime from anywhere" access benefits. A possible workaround would be to pass the data to a database accessible from the Internet. Although this approach doesn't provide real-time data, it does restore some remote availability benefits with reduced security concerns -- hackers could access the data but not the controls themselves and any damage would be done to the copy in the accessible database, not the source data that remains in the internal network.

Whatever the approach or extent of commitment to IIoT, the availability of more connected sensors, controls and devices undoubtedly provides the opportunity for a level of visibility and control unimaginable just a few years ago. Companies have the opportunity to keep closer track of everything going on in the plant, at subsidiary and remote plant locations, at subcontractor and suppliers plants, at remote warehouses, and on goods in transit anywhere in the world. New and evolving analytics and data visualization tools are making the IIoT's "big data" usable and beneficial as we continually strive for more efficiency, responsiveness and agility.

Any technological evolution will cause disruption, cost and strategic realignment but it's always done with the promise of improved operational performance. IIoT may just be the current step in that evolution but it is a significant one. We can already see glimpses of what tomorrow's factory will look like and IIoT will clearly be its eyes and ears.

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