Industrial Internet of Things - IIoT

Defining IIoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a global infrastructure that enables advanced services by interconnecting physical as well as virtual things based on existing and evolving interoperable information and communication technologies. That’s quite a mouthful, so let us make it simpler. IoT is a conceptual model that makes use of new technologies which enable devices to talk with each other directly using the internet, and take intelligent decisions based on available data. This ability of devices / machines to connect and communicate with each other presents a huge opportunity in the way manufacturing companies will operate in the future. When the principles of IoT are applied to industrial processes, you get Industrial IoT (IIoT). Industrial IoT is thus a subset of IoT and deals with the possibilities and advantages of connecting devices that transcend geophysical boundaries. The term was first coined by G.E., and then caught on.

Till the recent past, industrial automation and control systems were separate from conventional digital networks like enterprise ICT environments. The two could communicate with each other only through firewalls and / or demilitarized zones in order to secure the core control system components. The IIoT however is changing this, as both the physical and cyber networks blend holistically to form a single system.

Over a period of time the changes to the industry that IIoT will bring will be far reaching.  Companies have only scratched the surface as far as potential of IIoT goes. IIoT makes it possible to adjust their environment and maintain their health. IIoT will even make it viable for machines to diagnose themselves, schedule their own maintenance and adjust their control algorithms dynamically. If a part of the machine starts to give trouble or is on the verge of doing so, IIoT software will be able to pass this information to other machines that are dependent on it. The software will also suggest a possible solution so that production is not hampered. By making machines smarter through local processing and communication, the IIoT could solve problems in ways that were previously inconceivable.  Indeed, Industry 4.0 will usher great changes, and IIoT will be the spearhead of it.
History of IIoT
Truth be told, the foundation of the IIoT as we see it today was laid in the 1980s itself. The standardization of Ethernet connectivity in 1983 laid the groundwork to physically connect machines from different manufacturers. Six years later, Sir Tim Berners Lee was credited with the formation of the World Wide Web, which radically changed the way people and companies communicated. Since then, many companies and consortiums worked in collaboration to solve connectivity problems perpetuated by proprietary communication protocols. In the late 1990s, major advancements in wireless M2M technology took place. Ethernet, then well established, emerged as the universal connectivity standard in industrial settings. Interface standards began to differentiate by industry—the DNP and IEC 61850 that now dominate the power industry; BACnet in building automation; and additional standards like CC-Link, HART, etc. Consortiums for each of these standards began to form. The industrial sector was rapidly evolving towards the IIoT that we know today.

While iIoT standardization was taking shape, things began to fall in place mass scale only as the cloud technology advanced. As this new technology was embraced by midsized and even mini companies, it radically changed the way enterprise and industrial architectures were built and utilized. As data processing speed increased, it offered new opportunities for IIoT. Big data – as huge chunk of data is called – analysis took off and operational data began to yield real value. In addition, sensor technology became affordable. By implanting sensors on old machines, it became possible to communicate with them as well. This in turn allowed even legacy industrial architectures to be in the purview of IIoT. IT leaders like PTC and others began offering IIoT software platform, providing flexibility to the way companies accessed and analyzed data.  

As new technological advances are made, the cloud and virtual machines are still presenting new opportunities for the IIoT.

Challenges of IIoT
The idea of a smarter world where systems with sensors and local processing are connected to share information is taking hold in every single industry. These systems will be connected on a global scale with users and each other to help users make more informed decisions. The emergence of the IIoT has created both hype and confusion. Much of the early hype focused on the impact of technological advancements on existing automation platforms. However, actually implementing IIoT successfully is a daunting task due to the challenges it involves. A few of the challenges IIoT faces are mentioned below:

i. IIoT Architecture
One of the most important challenges that companies face while opting for IIoT is the choice of architecture. Since the concept of IIoT itself is based on connecting things and devices, network architecture plays a critical role. Different industries have different IIoT requirements. For example, the data output of an airplane taking off and landing is very different than that of a simple gasket manufacturing process. Since IIoT involves transmission of data, choosing the right IIoT architecture is therefore important.

ii. Adaptability and Scalability
One of the biggest advantages of the IIoT is that data is easily shared and analyzed for better decision making. For example, in a vendor-defined condition monitoring solution, the data being acquired and analyzed is not easily available; the system is limited to sending simple alarms to prevent a catastrophic failure. Data may be available after an event to analyze and determine what went wrong, but by then, time and money may have been lost. IIoT systems therefore need to be adaptive and scalable through software or added functionality that easily integrates into the overall solution.

iii. IIoT Platforms
As the IIoT landscape is growing, the IIOT platform market, along with a supporting ecosystem of technology and service providers, is emerging. Modern IIoT platforms like PTC Thingworx use next-generation technology to facilitate flexible, scalable applications that leverage both the cloud and big data analytics capabilities. Choosing a platform is challenging, as there is no one size fits all kind of solution. IIoT platforms are requirement specific, and it is essential to know the available platforms, as well their performances and features before choosing one.

iv. Security
As massive networks of systems come online, these systems need to communicate with each other and with the enterprise, often over vast distances. As information on the IIoT grid becomes more accessible, so does the damage a security breach can inflict. IIoT Network has to be really secure to prevent any data security breach. One of the most prevalent examples of the need for security is the smart grid, which is on the leading edge of the IIoT. As information on the grid becomes more accessible, the chances of security breach increase and have to be carefully guarded against.

v. Maintenance and Updates
In addition to being secure, IIoT systems need to be continually modified and maintained to meet ever-changing functionality and system-maintenance requirements. As more capabilities are added, software updates are needed or more systems must be added. Soon a tangled web of interconnected components starts to form. The new system has to integrate not only with the original system but also all of the other systems. Imagine modifying and updating thousands or millions of systems located all over the world, including some in remote locations.

IoT and IIoT look to be changing the industry landscape. As cloud technology improves, computing power increases, sensors become affordable and communication technology becomes more reliable, platforms that offer IIoT  (like ThingWorx from PTC) look all set to take advantage of better inter-machine and machine-human communication. Industry 4.0 looks all set to change the future!