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Standard things

27 April 2015

If ever the importance of industrial automation were in doubt, the Internet of Things (otherwise known as IoT, IPv6 or Industry 4.0) is probably the clincher. Following the PC and the Internet, it will be the next IT technology to change the world, says Andy Pye

There are currently 5.5 billion mobile devices in the world alone - if each one of them were to need an IP address (and that’s likely to be true in the very near future), they alone would require more than the currently available Internet addresses under IPv4.

Happily, in 1996, Vint Cerf and others saw this bottleneck coming: they put together a new addressing protocol, IPv6, with 128 bits of address space. That means IPv6 can accommodate 340 trillion trillion trillion (3.4 times ten to the power of 38) addresses. That should be enough for a while.

Cloud is really just another name for an off-site server!

But while the IoT is much more readily associated with consumer electronics, it is in industrial automation that many of the early applications are to be found in sensors, networks, services, and applications. Remote access and Machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies have long existed, though mostly in proprietary implementations, and have worked well for many users. And cloud is really just another name for an off-site server!

And so, the term Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has been conceived.

If, in industry, we had computers that knew everything there was to know about these things - using data they gathered without any help from us - we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.

Even so, the transition to IPv6 has been slow – currently, only about 5 to 10% of users are able to support IPv6. Some early implementers include Rio Tinto's autonomous mining operations in Western Australia's Pilbera area. The "Mine of the Future" programme uses wireless technology to increase productivity, safety and minimise downtime and disruption to mining operations.

Rio Tinto’s devices capture and generate huge amounts of data, which in the IT world they call Big Data - data sets so large and complex that they become awkward to work with using existing management tools. In contrast, with the PLC-based control of process automation, we have been used to collecting just a few data points, limited by simple serial networks and the negligible storage capacity of the control devices.

But in the main, large-scale applications are still a long way off, because the business model is lacking in the technical standards and standard protocols that would allow even the smallest manufacturer to see benefits.

Modern advanced manufacturing has already begun adapting the standardised protocol of Ethernet to the field level. With Industrial Ethernet, such as EtherCAT and Profinet, becoming more established across industry, it is a natural enabling technology for the Industrial Internet.

Ethernet-based networks allow every part of an automation system, from sensors to robots, to exchange information at speeds that were undreamt of in the past. This gives the controller instant access to every detail of production information.

Industrial Ethernet is concerned with sub-second timeframes. Stepping back from the sub-second timeframe (to a longer time frame), Industrial Ethernet becomes industrial Internet.

End-user IT departments will have to work more closely with engineering to allow shop-floor equipment to have direct access to enterprise-level systems without the use of middleware.

The latest machine automation controllers, such as Omron’s Sysmac NJ series, have this level of functionality embedded, thanks to program-free "wizard" connections to relational databases. They combine the reliability and rugged design of a traditional PLC, but use an open hardware architecture combined with software "engines" within a single CPU – rather than multiple CPUs – to manage their different functions.

Key Points

  • Many early IoT applications are found in industrial automation – in sensors, networks and services
  • Transition to the IPv6 addressing protocol has been slow – currently, only about 5 to 10% of users are able to support IPv6
  • Modern advanced manufacturing has begun adapting the standardised protocol of Ethernet to the field level