Latest News

Making the most of IoT

IT HAS been talked about for over a decade and it has long been touted as a game changer for the manufacturing industry due to its potential to drive efficiencies and increase productivity of operations, but researchers are predicting that this is the year the Internet of Things (IoT) will finally take flight. 

Deloitte forecasts that in this year alone, one billion wireless IoT devices will be shipped, up 60 per cent from last year, leading to an installed base of 2.8 billion devices across the globe. IoT-specific hardware is likely to be worth $10 billion by the end of 2015 and the associated services enabled by the devices worth about $70 billion. 

The opportunities presented by the IoT are said to far outweigh any challenges that it may present such as cyber security and network issues. 

These opportunities include:

  • Asset utilisation – by improving business process execution and capital efficiency,
  • Increased employee productivity – by making the best use of employee skills and availability,
  • Reduced waste and improved process efficiency – by maximising the Supply Chain and Logistics,
  • Reduced time to market for innovations,
  • Increased customers and customer lifetime value – as the customer experience is also raised and overall;
  • The ability to effectively utilise Big Data to drive informed and efficient business decisions. 

However despite widespread awareness of the benefits the IoT can bring, there is still much ambiguity within various industries as to how organisations can effectively utilise the IoT so that they can drive business efficiencies, increase business performance and improve overall business successes. 

Understanding the IoT

Loosely defined, the IoT is a network connection of process, data and devices. 

The IoT goes beyond machine-to-machine communication and offers advanced connectivity of devices, systems and services, through a variety of protocols, domains and applications. The interconnection of these devices is then expected to improve the automation across a plant, operation or organisation. 

The benefits of the IoT come into play when the data that is derived from the connected devices network, is able to be utilised as valuable insights that could ultimately serve to make decisions affecting people, processes and operations. 

The rise of the IoT and awareness of it benefits has meant that industrial plants are working towards a connected architecture by adopting intelligent devices that can communicate with each other. This process is often referred to as building the hard infrastructure or architecture of an IoT enabled operation. 

However, the adoption of smart devices is where many are halting in the process of developing IoT operability. 

In order for the IoT to result in benefits of efficiencies and process improvements, the IoT must go beyond the architecture of connected devices to be underpinned by a strong, capable and connected network backbone. 

Building the foundation of the IoT 

The Open Device Net Vendor Association (ODVA), or the global, vendor neutral organisation of the world's leading automation companies explains that the standard that allows the IoT is Internet Protocol or IP. 

In order to maximise the potential of the IoT all intelligent devices within an organisation need to be interoperable.

The importance of interoperability is realised when considering the network backbone of the IoT. 

There are two prominent industrial communication protocols. These are non-standard Ethernet network variants and Ethernet/IP.

Non-standard Ethernet network variants use non-standard technology and are modified for specific applications. This means they are not able to speak to architectures compliant with Ethernet and Internet standards and can only communicate with a single domain or cell. This means they are severely limited in the context of the IoT. 

Ethernet IP is however, fully compliant with the Internet protocol suite. Ethernet/IP is recommended by the ODVA as the only true, proven, and complete industrial Ethernet network that is ready for the IoT.  The key is the adoption of open protocols into the Ethernet architecture.

The benefits of Ethernet/IP

There are many benefits of using Ethernet/IP as an industrial communication protocol. Among these benefits are those that make it the most applicable network for organisations leveraging the IoT. 

These include: 

  • Openness
  • Transparency and;
  • Flexibility 

Exploring openness with Ethernet/IP

Ethernet openness is the ability to mix different application protocols on the same network media.  These different application protocols provide different services to best fit with a business's operational needs.

When it comes to industrial communication, the ODVA specifies Ethernet industrial protocols to enable communication between controllers or between controllers and operational visualisation where determinism is a must.

However, during operations there are other needs such as diagnostics, time synchronisation or IT connection. Using Ethernet allows businesses to use existing standards such as web based diagnostics over HTTP, time synchronisation with NTP and IT connections over web services.

Further to this, from a business standpoint this openness means that a more cost effective solution is created allowing organisations the freedom to select a manufacturer of choice.

Exploring transparency with Ethernet/IP

Ethernet transparency is also a key point and a great technology benefit to the Ethernet/IP network. 

The drawback of this transparency is the administrative requirement to ensure security of the network to avoid intrusions. This being said, being able to securely access data from everywhere on an intranet has lots of advantages. 

These include:

  • Cost – Process automation has a huge impact on the energy consumption costs for a company. Having Ethernet on process units at a lower plant level will help to access data straight away, without the need of middleware. 
  • Energy management – Data consolidation will also enable businesses to manage and forecast their energy consumption, and at the same time decrease it without infrastructure evolution.
  • Agility – The transparency of Ethernet will help businesses to have agile operations by directly connecting manufacturing execution systems with no additional development costs.

There are also other advantages to accessing data from control systems from higher levels of the enterprise such as asset management, production data, remote maintenance, and evolution. 

There is however, an administration cost to manage the security of Ethernet installation and to maintain it. But Ethernet will avoid the need to develop specialised middleware for energy management or MES connections. The maintenance will only occur at the network level and does not need to be dedicated to specific areas by specialised teams which saves costs in the long run.

Exploring the flexibility of Ethernet

Ethernet also allows different topologies (bus, ring, star etc.) over a mix of different media's depending on the speed and noise immunity requirements. This flexibility helps to complement plant topology at the right cost.

The bus topology will provide low cost connection, with a daisy chain feature, where availability is not mandatory. The use of fibre optic cable will enable a long distance network whilst retaining a high bandwidth.

When designing the network topology, it can help to have distributed devices from a single part of the plant. Star topology can be used to secure network devices with critical data, thereby avoiding "man in the middle" attack (where a cyber-attack is aimed at the communication between the endpoints on a network).

The ring topology is a typical architecture in automation, as most of the time network availability is a requirement and designed to allow at least with one fault tolerance.

The ability to mix those topologies within a plant helps operations managers to adapt network layouts within physical and availability requirements.

Using Ethernet to leverage the IoT 

Many manufacturing plants have already started to prepare to utilise the IoT by adopting smart and intelligent devices across their operations with the aim of communicating and connecting devices to share data. It is predicted that between 80 and 100 per cent of manufacturers will be using IoT applications by 2025.

However, connected devices cannot work in silos. In order to gain the most benefit from the IoT technology, the physical architecture of the manufacturing plant must be underpinned by a solid industry communications protocol or network.

There are many benefits to using Ethernet/IP as the network protocol for the IoT. Not only is Ethernet/IP the only protocol designed with the application of the Internet of Thing at its heart, but a network architecture with an Ethernet backbone increases the agility of an enterprise's operations. It is flexible, transparent and open and therefore enables evolution within an organisation without any change to the infrastructure itself.

If manufacturing is to take full advantage of the suite of benefits allowable by the IoT, such as increased asset utilisation, enhanced employee productivity, reduced waste, improved process efficiency and the overall ability to effectively utilise Big Data to drive business decisions, it must first consider the need for a strong network protocol – something the likes of organisations like ODVA are fully encouraging. 

The most suitable industrial communications network is undeniably Ethernet/IP. 

Daniel Hancock is Systems Technical Expert/Industrial Communications Specialist at Schneider Electric.

Send this to a friend