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Explaining the process: IIoT and the future of control systems

The latest general meeting of the IICA in Sydney, which took place at Strathfield Golf Club in mid-April, featured a presentation by Manny Romero, the director of ETM Pacific, who explained how the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is changing the control system environment.

Romero began by addressing the inherent woolliness of the concept of IIoT, which can cause a great deal of confusion. “One of the easiest ways to explain IIoT is starting with what IIoT is not,” Romero said. “It’s not a technology. It’s not a protocol. It’s not a standard. IIoT is not dominated by any one vendor. It’s not going to replace control systems by any means. And it’s not the same as Industry 4.0, which is another very popular term these days.”

So, then, what is the Industrial Internet of Things? Romero explained that it is a new paradigm – “SCADA for the masses” – which gives anyone the means to design and build a control system, regardless of technical knowledge and experience. “It is a new ecosystem that introduces new types of technologies, new types hardware and software, and which brings the online cloud into the industrial space. It also introduces new business models and new revenue streams,” he said.

Romero said that IIoT came about as a convergence of technologies, many of which are already located in the typical smart phone. “We are all carrying an amazing amount of technology in what is really a very powerful device. And first and foremost, from a hardware perspective, there is the family of technologies called micro-electro- mechanical systems (MEMS).” MEMS are miniaturised mechanical and electro- mechanical devices and structures that are made via microfabrication – the process of fabricating miniature structures at micrometre scales and smaller. MEMS devices can vary from simple structures to complex electromechanical systems. Among the components of MEMS are microsensors that can that can monitor and measure movement, humidity, temperature, pressure, etc. “MEMS are the start of the hardware revolution,” Romero said.

In terms of wireless technologies, there are new WAN technologies which are expanding the options available. Also, cloud platforms are enabling companies to make less heavy investment in new infrastructure in their own environments. “It has really levelled the playing field as to who can get into this market. Further, application programming interfaces (APIs) allow disparate systems to talk to each other, while ever-continuing improvements in connectivity and bandwidth means that speeds are going up and costs are going down,” Romero said. “We are at the point now where bandwidth or data is a basic utility, and it doesn’t really cost much anymore.”

According to Romero, the world of IIoT is analogous to health tracking devices like Fitbits, which are a main feature of the consumer-based Internet of Things (IoT). These devices contain the MEMS technology to track movement, blood pressure, elevation, body temperature, pulse, etc.; they are low powered enough that they can run on batteries; and they use wireless technology – typically Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) – to talk to our phones. “BLE is an exciting technology that, in my view, forms the underlying foundation for new opportunities in industrial settings,” he said. With regards to software, too, the resident firmware in Fitbit devices is highly sophisticated, while the apps that the devices use are all accessible via the online cloud. And, the accessibility of the data means that it offers opportunities for new business models in the form of third-party companies utilising and monetising that data for their own services.

The consumer-based Internet of Things and the Industrial Internet of Things are equally sophisticated and complex, with essentially the same technological architecture and types of connectivity. “In fact, the sophistication of the hardware, the software, the firmware, the apps – the vertically-integrated solution – is just as complex as any modern SCADA or control system environment,” Romero said.

Romero then spelt out the differences between the traditional control system environment (SCADA, DCS, PLC) and IIoT. The traditional control system world is a closed ecosystem – even though there might be open protocols and open standards – and it is one that is very difficult to break into. It is enterprise-centric, centred on large organisations, and requires high-levels of expertise. By comparison, IIoT is extremely open, and almost anyone can get involved –it doesn’t require the same depth and technicality of knowledge that is typical for traditional process control environments. Further, data in the traditional setting is very siloed within single departments, while IIoT data is usually spread across a whole enterprise and, sometimes, beyond the enterprise, with very minimal effort.

Romero said this openness of IIoT heavily distinguished it from the business models of the past. “The traditional control system world has a few, big players that design and make these systems, and they protect their market share, making it difficult for new players to jump in,” he said. IIoT, on the other hand, is a disruptive technology, with many players in the market.

Control systems will typically feature user layer workstations, whereas the IIoT world employs apps (often on phones) and web server applications. And IIoT makes use of the cloud, where data and applications are stored.

Regarding communications, many traditional systems are characterised by the use of Ethernet, though cellular communications have now moved into this architecture, particularly in SCADA for remote access, where it replaces traditional telemetry. While there are a few commonly used protocols in the traditional space, in the industrial IoT world, there has been a great proliferation of different protocols. MQTT (Messaging Queueing Telemetry Transport) and CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol) are among the most popular.

“I was at a meeting the other day with a company that comes from the traditional SCADA control world. They’ve now jumped into IIoT and have developed a whole new server platform, using their experience and background in the industrial SCADA environment,” Romero said. “They did a lot of research as to the appropriate types of protocols to use, settling for one that is often used in the finance industry, a client server protocol, but one that is extremely fast. It came out of a completely different market, but they were able to see how it could work for their IIoT solutions.”

And most of the new protocols coming through in the world of IIoT are incredibly well-suited to encryption, Romero said. “They come with very high levels of encryption, as opposed to the traditional industrial world, where anyone can go along to a two-wire transmitter with a HART (Highway Addressable Remote Transducer) protocol with a handheld HART communicator they’ve bought from Ebay and connect up to it. The cybersecurity features of IIoT protocols are a key part of what makes them an industrial solution.”

In sensors, Romero said that in the traditional control system environment, things had, for the most part, been the same for the last 30 years following the move out of pneumatics: often analogue, discreet, with 4-20 mA output. “In the IIoT world, on the other hand, there are a plethora of new sensor types – the MEMS devices that are making inroads in the development of a whole new family of sensor types,” he said. “There is also now, with wireless technologies, a whole new set of ways to power sensors. This is definitely where there is a new paradigm with IIoT.”

Bringing up a black and white picture of an old industrial mainframe from the 1960s on his presentation slideshow, Romero said that this was the way young people coming through the industry saw SCADA today – ancient, antiquated, massively- expensive systems that require in-depth expertise for operation, making barriers to entry very high. “This is a generational shift that is happening. From the old centralised computer systems, to the PC era, to this new era, which is about data centres, and where efficiency and agility is at a whole new level,” Romero said.

And the IIoT shift is bringing with it a whole new set of business models, such as pay-as-you-go, a focus on operational expenditures rather than capital expenditures (which have lowered). It’s a new way of looking at things. And, often, this divide between different generations of technology matches up with a generational divide in the workforce as well. Young people coming out of university today will be more familiar with these new structures, with little to no understanding of legacy systems.

“What I’m finding as I travel around the country visiting clients and talking about IIoT solutions is that, more and more, people are interested in data, the dashboard, the app, and less and less about the equipment that gets it there, which they assume is fit for purpose. They’re far more interested in what the data will do for them and their business, and how it can be tied in with existing legacy systems.”

According to Romero, to understand the world of IIoT it is apt to think of an “industrial Fitbit” for the process environment, where MEMS allow for the monitoring vibration, temperature and humidity in industrial settings. A battery-powered and wireless revolution, it would appear that this kind of flexible, data- centric model, while not replacing process control systems, will be a major part of the future of monitoring and control in industrial settings.

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