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The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is not about ripping out current automation systems in order to replace them with new ones. End users have invested hundreds of millions in industrial automation and control systems and are absolutely unwilling to invest millions more to replace those systems with new technologies. End users also resist rapid and radical change because of the increased risk of downtime and associated costs.
IIoT is often presented as a revolution that is changing the face of industry in a profound manner. In reality, it is an evolution that has its origins in technologies and functionalities developed by visionary automation suppliers more than 15 years ago. As the necessary global standards mature, it may well take another 15 years to realise the full potential of IIoT. After all, the benefit of IIoT lies in the ability to link automation systems with enterprise planning, scheduling and product lifecycle systems in order to enable greater business control.
While the long-term impact of IIoT is difficult to predict, three distinct operational environments will emerge as key areas that will initiate the gradual transition to IIoT.
Smart Enterprise Control – IIoT technologies will enable tight integration of smart connected machines and smart connected manufacturing assets with the wider enterprise. This will facilitate more flexible and efficient, and hence profitable, manufacturing. Smart enterprise control can be viewed as a mid-to-long-term trend. It is complex to implement and will require the creation of new standards to enable the convergence of IT and OT systems.
Asset Performance Management – Deployment of cost effective wireless sensors, easy cloud connectivity and data analytics, will improve asset performance. These tools allow data to be easily gathered from the field and converted into actionable information in real time. This will result in better business decisions and forward-looking decision making processes.
Augmented Operators – Future employees will use mobile devices, data analytics, augmented reality and transparent connectivity to increase productivity. As fewer skilled workers are left behind to man core operations due to a rapid increase in baby-boomer retirement, younger replacement plant workers will need information at their fingertips. That information will be delivered in a real-time format that is familiar to them. Thus the plant evolves to be more user-centric and less machine-centric.
Several barriers will need to be overcome before next generation IIoT systems are widely adopted. These include the establishment of industry standards around IIoT, cyber security protection, and workforce adaptation to new sets of skills.
While these three areas are closely related and share many inter-dependencies, they also have differences. For example the time scales on which they can be implemented and the kind of automation market segment they address are not the same.
Despite this slow, gradual IIoT adoption scenario, the impact on manufacturing will be far-reaching. Suppliers and users will have to embrace IIoT technologies if they wish to remain competitive. The good news is that the new technology allows for IIoT solutions to be phased in so that physical infrastructure base can be shifted over time. The cost of connected sensors is dropping rapidly, open IP-based protocols are gaining traction at an accelerating rate, and the adoption of cloud-based solutions is becoming a reality. Suppliers like Schneider Electric have the expertise to work with manufacturing companies to apply IIoT technologies to production systems and drive the evolution towards a smart manufacturing enterprise that is more efficient, safer and more sustainable.