Nick Boughton discusses the challenges connectivity poses for industry, particularly with regard to systems integration and the water industry
Believe it or not, our world is getting smaller every day. Never before have remote locations been more accessible thanks to communications technology, smartphones and the internet. Connected devices have infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including the most traditional industry sectors.
One question industry has been unsuccessful in answering refers to the number of connected devices that exist in the world at the moment. Although we don’t have a definitive number, all the estimates are mind-blowing. Gartner says that by 2020, the Internet of Things will have grown to more than 26 billion units. According to Cisco, there will be 10 billion mobile-ready devices by 2018, including machine to machine – thus exceeding the world population.
The Industrial Internet of Things
It’s important to mention that these devices won’t all be smartphones, PCs and tablets, but will include wearable technology, web enabled TV, white goods, cars and so on – all connected in a gigantic web of communications. In industry, the phenomenon has several names: the Industrial Internet of Things, Industry 4.0 and Connected Enterprise. Beyond futuristic tags, all these concepts reflect the same reality: the need to optimise production through connectivity and an increased flow of data.
Only 15 years ago, an industrial plant operated on three separate levels. You had the plant processes or operational technology (OT), the IT layer and in between stood the grey area of middleware - connecting management systems to the shop floor. The problem in most enterprises was that the commercial and production systems were entirely separate, often as a deliberate policy. Trying to connect them was difficult not only because of the divergence in the technology, but also the limited collaboration between different parts of the organisation. For these reasons successful implementation of middleware was rare.
Fast forward to today’s smart factory floor that uses the almost ubiquitous Ethernet to make communications as smooth as possible. Supporting the new generation of networking technologies is an increased flow of data, collected and analysed in real-time. However, data is only useful when you can decipher and display it. The next step to industry nirvana is using relevant data for better decisions and predictive analysis, in which the system itself can detect issues and recommend solutions.
Smart manufacturing is based on a common, secure network infrastructure that allows a dialogue – or even better, convergence - between operational and information technology.
Interestingly enough, the trend goes beyond the factory floor and expands to big processes like national utilities, water treatment and distribution, energy and smart grids, everything in an effort to drive better decision making, improve asset utilisation and increase process performance and productivity.
In fact, some water and energy companies are using the same approach to perform self-analysis on energy efficiency, potential weak points and the integration of legacy systems with new technologies. In a highly regulated and driven sector like utilities, maximising assets and being able to make predictions are worth a king’s ransom.
The connected enterprise
You’d be forgiven for thinking the whole vision sounds like a utopia. If you work in industry, you know the transition to convergent network architecture can be a little bit more painful than Industry 4.0 makes it sound. One of the main challenges is integrating layer upon layer of systems and technologies from different manufacturers, some dating back several decades.
Luckily, this challenge is now being addressed by the likes of Rockwell Automation, who has teamed up with Cisco to help companies that are keen to take advantage of the new technology and move into the next era of industry.
Rockwell Automation’s Connected Enterprise leverages technology to gather and analyse data and transform it into insightful information that helps make better business decisions. The benefits are clear for anyone with eyes to see. Faster time to market, lower maintenance and efficiency costs, resulting in lower cost of ownership, improved asset usage and enterprise risk management are just some of the advantages that come to mind when discussing the potential of the Connected Enterprise.
The real hurdle comes when you transpose the concept into practice. Luckily, Rockwell Automation has identified five easy stages of the Connected Enterprise model. The first stage requires an overall assessment that looks at existing IT and OT infrastructure, as well as processes that currently don’t take advantage of the convergence of these two layers.
The next step is securing and upgrading existing IT and OT infrastructure – putting the systems in place that allow two-way communication between operations and business enterprise.
The next two stages focus on data – a central element of the Connected Enterprise. Stage three refers to working data capital. It involves defining and organising production data to deliver insights that allow real-time decision-making. Once the data exists, stage four addresses data analytics – and this is where it really gets interesting.
The aim of collecting more data, storing it and analysing it is to turn it into useful information that helps you change processes or equipment, so you increase productivity, lower costs, boost energy efficiency and improve customer satisfaction.
Finally, the last stage is optimising and collaborating. The Connected Enterprise is not a one-off; it’s a change in company culture that places continuous improvement at the heart of the organisation.
System integration challenges
System integration in this connected industry landscape comes with its challenges, so companies need to keep up to speed and get creative with technology. Keeping existing systems up to date and working properly is one of the main challenges of industry and big processes alike.
Another fundamental challenge is getting access to latent data, either by using existing technologies or upgrading systems. This doesn’t just mean collecting data, but also storing it, analysing it and displaying it. Only then does data actually start becoming useful – when it turns into knowledge.
Finally, ensuring your system is secure from cyber threats and attacks is a new challenge fit for Industry 4.0. Connecting a system or equipment to a network is all fine and dandy, but it also brings vulnerabilities that weren’t there before.
The great thing about systems integrators is that they relish a challenge and they’re very good at adapting to new technologies. For this reason, some systems integrators have started working closely with industrial automation, IT and security experts to help overcome the challenges posed by Industry 4.0.
Regardless of whether we’re talking about companies in utilities, manufacturing or transportation, the signs are showing that companies want to get more from their existing assets and are retrofitting systems more than ever.
Of course, retrofitting isn’t always easy. In many cases, upgrading a system without shutting it down is like trying to change the brakes on a speeding bus – impossible. However, unlike the bus scenario, there is usually a solution. All you have to do is find it.
Flexibility is essential for good systems integrators. Being familiar with a wide range of systems and working with different manufacturers is the best way to maximise industry knowledge and expertise, while also keeping up to date with the latest technologies. At Boulting Technology, we partner up with market leaders like Rockwell Automation, Siemens, Mitsubishi, Schneider, ABB and others, to design and supply tailor-made systems integration solutions for a diverse range of industries, processes and platforms.
The world might be getting smaller and we might be more connected than ever before, but some things never change. Relevant experience, partnerships and the desire to innovate are as valuable as they have ever been in this connected new world of Industry 4.0.
Nick Boughton is sales manager with the Boulting Group.