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Drawn into the net

Chris Woodhams, Managing Director of Argenta, identified that "I have been to many events in the past 12 – 18 months where IoT has been prominent and I think we are starting to see applications with real benefits. Being a part of the IoT meetup at Warick University (WMG) has shown me the breadth of these applications. Within industry there is huge potential to connect devices/machines to enable improvements in efficiency, safety and productivity. The National Instruments’ tool set is well placed to support these applications".

The idea of the Internet of Things has had time to catch on now. Across many areas of engineering, people have been exposed to the potential of connecting different things up to the internet and using sensors to record data.


Some have become very excited indeed about this potential – 20 billion, 30 billion or even 50 billion devices may be connected to the internet in the future, say analysts, and the market could be worth $1.3 trillion. Engineers are beginning to grapple with the ways in which they can improve the functionality of devices and products.

However, many companies struggle to define what the implication of this technology is for their businesses, particularly in manufacturing and process sectors. Connectivity and data collection are not new concepts in these sectors, though, and perhaps the most straightforward approach to the Internet of Things (IoT) is to consider it a rebranding exercise for automation.

Brian Holliday, digital factory managing director at Siemens, has been promoting Industry 4.0 as part of the company’s digital factory initiative for the past two years. “There’s a need now to show what digital manufacturing can do, instead of just talking about it,” he says. “The picture is becoming clearer. Industry 4.0 has gone viral in the grandest sense, in Europe, the US, China. It’s developing momentum in developed manufacturing nations, and is the most prevalent topic in Europe when talking about reindustrialisation.

“Different sectors are at various levels of maturity, but automotive leads.”

Industry 4.0 can be seen as a smart manufacturing platform that enhances competitiveness, increases productivity and shortens supply chains, adds Holliday. There isn’t a fully developed “Industry 4.0 platform” for people to claim compatibility with. But there are four principal areas where companies need to start preparing for IoT, he says. The first is to create a “data backbone” to capture and contain the digital footprint of your product and plant. The second is to install hardware for the communication networks and sensors you need. The third is security – companies must start using and storing data in a secure way. Finally, firms must begin to consider how they will generate value from the data they are collecting.

The journey industrial companies have to go through to know what to do with all this hard-won data is being mirrored in the consumer sector. Many consumer-facing firms are recognising the value of data and connectivity and are using it to improve designs or deliver services. However, the answer in industry isn’t as straightforward as adopting those uses. “Some of those applications aren’t appropriate for an industrial space,” says Holliday. “We need industrial communications protocols, secure cloud environments and open standards that help us design.

“I would advocate analytic activities such as energy are good places to start in an industrial environment. Condition monitoring and autonomous learning are also areas where Industry 4.0 can make a huge difference.”

In terms of IoT communications and data standards, Holliday says they are converging and becoming platform independent. That will make it easier to design and develop “Industry 4.0 machines” and to link them together. In the same way that proprietary industrial communications standards moved to open protocols during the 1990s, there is a shift from TCP IP to OPC UA (Object Linking and Embedding for Process Control Unified Architecture) for sharing data between applications.


Stefan Selke, machinery OEM distributors marketing manager at Eaton, which supplies components for equipment and machinery makers, agrees that OPC UA is becoming the standard protocol for “outside” of the machine. “Inside” the machine, software and control systems can stay proprietary. By adding the required communications software and hardware for machine-to-machine communications, plus a programmable touchscreen interface with the machine, it can become compatible with Industry 4.0. The machine will be able to communicate statistics and data about its condition, and the way it is operated can be improved.

Selke says: “Many parts of industry are making Industry 4.0 overcomplicated. There is a bit of IT and security needed. But many small- to medium-sized machine builders are overwhelmed by all the options.

“Often, it doesn’t need an entirely new machine, just a communications upgrade to make them more modular and decentralised. It is also then possible for old and new machines to communicate. Engineers don’t need to be scared of Industry 4.0.”

Flexibility built in

Selke says Industry 4.0 should mean more flexibility for machine builders. He says: “They will be able to develop and build a machine on a modular basis, with components from different suppliers, more easily.”

As a supplier, Eaton is keen to help companies adopt Industry 4.0 technology at a pace they are comfortable with because, says Selke, the technology offers them greater opportunities to improve processes and products. The end goal is a factory that is able to offer its own work capacity into a corporate network via an Enterprise Resource Planning system, offering levels of integration and customisation that would not be possible otherwise.

Like Holliday, Selke describes security as being a big challenge. He says that firms need to assess the real need: “Lots of people talk about the security of putting things like the machine’s PLC in the cloud. Why should we do that? The communication I need isn’t required within the cloud, it’s deeper within the machine and the factory. You need to mitigate risk, which you can do better by leaving the control in the machine rather than in the cloud.”

Some engineering suppliers are taking a very direct approach to selling IoT features to their customers. ABB is using its St Neots facility in Cambridgeshire to showcase its strategy and products.

ABB has built a Learning Centre there to train staff and customers. It has a mock control centre, in which various scenarios can be played out.

During a visit, the centre plays host to a short scenario when a compressor fails on an oil rig. From the control centre, an engineer uses CCTV, radios, phones and RFID tags to locate nearby staff and investigate the problem. The control centre communicates with a headquarters elsewhere, sending condition monitoring data to an expert, who helps to identify the problem as a stuck valve.

Concentrated brainpower

The scenario is slickly played out, and the problem is identified and rectified quickly and effectively. Gavin Doyle, telecommunications specialist at ABB, says: “Through the use of some basic IT tools we can bring a lot more brainpower to bear without putting any more people at risk. The key thing is that the expertise doesn’t have to be onsite to help solve the problem. Situational awareness is also key, and allows people to solve the problem quicker.”

The main difference between ABB’s pitch for industrial IoT and its competitors is an emphasis on communication and people. Part of the plan is to spread the company’s domain from its natural habitat of process control in plants and factories into the communications, power, safety and security, and management networks. Integration between these traditionally ‘siloed’ areas brings about collaborative operations, which can result in efficiency gains and improvements in safety and security, says the company.

Steve Royston, automation specialist at ABB, says: “We always start with the user’s needs, and they need more efficiency, more safety and to optimise their processes. We need to deliver value.

“So we aim to introduce a more predictive environment and to prioritise people in that environment. Through this, industry can improve efficiencies while ensuring everything remains safe.”

Sensors can collect data on power, vibration, heat and pressure, and integrate it with other instrumentation and telecoms. The critical step is then to turn that data into actionable information, says Royston. This requires predictive analytics to enable the user to be proactive, and the creation of what ABB is calling “intelligent applications”. These applications deliver information relevant to users, achieving specific key performance indicators, and are displayed on a variety of devices and in the control centre.

Royston agrees that one of the key aspects of industrial IoT is interoperability. “One of the biggest challenges is to get a common data format between different equipment and suppliers,” he says.

Furthermore, he says there is an incoming regulatory need for IoT-related technology in many parts of the process industries and manufacturing. Recent changes to standards place more onus on plant managers for safety and even cyber security.

But if regulatory reasons don’t force the uptake of IoT technology, experts believe that ignoring the trend would be foolhardy. Holliday from Siemens says: “Companies need to start thinking about things differently. Not embracing digital will leave companies behind.

“It’s not just about productivity, it’s about agility. Businesses will be competing in a future where people will demand choice and individualised products. The challenge is to make more variants of a product in a factory originally configured for mass production, without an increase in costs. Technology has an important role to play in this, and embracing it earlier can only be a good thing.”

In focus - work in the pipeline

Engineers at ABB St Neots develop and test the control systems and instrumentation for plants and infrastructure.

The biggest project the engineers are working on is the 1,800km Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline, for BP and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan. When commissioned in 2019, the pipeline will run from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Turkey to deliver gas to Europe. The pipeline has a control centre every 30km. Fibre-optic sensing technology from UK company Optisense is being used for perimeter security and monitoring.

ABB St Neots has designed the controls, instrumentation and communications infrastructure for the entire pipeline project.

Accreditation: Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Ben Sampson, 2016. The original article can be located here.

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