Many manufacturers are viewing the emerging Industrial “Internet of Things” (IIoT) as a way to provide their businesses with a new and powerful competitive advantage. They recognize the potential in harnessing and analyzing data from across the plant to drive greater efficiency and create the foundation for new business models. But how can manufacturers navigate from the automation infrastructures of today to the intelligent IIoT enterprises they envision?
To help answer that question, manufacturers stand to learn much from looking at other industries and how they have addressed the challenges of moving to the IIoT. Companies in a number of industries — from energy to financial services to telecom and building security — have successfully made the transition from the inflexible, limited proprietary technologies of the past to the agile, intelligent open technologies of today.
As manufacturers chart their course, there are insights they can glean from other industries that are successfully achieving the advantages of next-generation IIoT automation.
1. Adopt a Standards-Based Approach
As with other industrial organizations, manufacturers often rely on automation infrastructures built on aging systems and software — many of which are approaching or have reached end of life. These systems are often proprietary systems that limit upgrade options to a single vendor, driving up costs. Replacing these legacy, closed systems with standards-based platforms dramatically reduces hardware cost. But even more importantly, it enables innovation.
Consider the experience of the telecom industry. Telecom carriers once relied on costly, proprietary switch platforms to provide basic communications services. This model changed in the early 2000s as innovative carriers saw the advantages of a new approach: use low-cost, off-the-shelf computing platforms running industry-standard operating systems to deliver “enhanced services” applications. This drastically reduced the cost of building out their central office infrastructures, while igniting an explosion of innovation. Standards-based technologies unleashed developers to create breakthrough communications applications, eventually leading to today’s explosion of innovative mobile apps.
In the same way, moving to standards-based infrastructures will free manufacturing enterprises to leverage a new generation of automation applications offering capabilities with the potential to dramatically increase productivity.
2. Embrace Connectivity
The ability to bring together data from diverse systems and sensors across the manufacturing enterprise is key to realizing advanced IIoT automation capabilities. This requires increased connectivity, potentially including Internet or private-cloud-based technologies. Risk-averse operational technology (OT) groups often equate increased connectivity with increased risk. However, as data becomes more central to operations, increased connectivity is inevitable. This requires organizations to focus on identifying and protecting potential points of vulnerability.
Consider the example of the financial services industry, an extremely risk-averse business. Banks and credit companies once built impenetrable technological “walls” designed to isolate their mission-critical transaction systems. To compete in today’s mobile, digital consumer marketplace, financial service providers recognize that customers demand the ability to connect with their money from anywhere, anytime. Of course, this shift toward greater connectivity has only sharpened the industry’s focus on security and availability. Today, major consumer banks and credit lenders boast some the world’s most secure, connected infrastructures.
3. Leverage Distributed Intelligence
One of the most exciting aspects of the IIoT is the notion of distributed intelligence. The IIoT-enabled enterprise gathers data generated by equipment, sensors and systems distributed throughout the plant and the supply chain. This data is aggregated and analyzed to help optimize production processes, identify potential problems earlier, and formulate new insights for business improvement.
This approach to distributed intelligence is transforming a host of industries, including the oil & gas industry. Remote gas pipeline compression stations are instrumented with sensors that provide real-time data sent to centralized analytics platforms. These intelligent analytics engines can predict the early signs of failure — such as increased turbine vibration — enabling maintenance to be scheduled as needed, rather than a planned, preventative, periodic shutdown, or unplanned downtime due to catastrophic failure. Since these remote sites are usually unmanned, this is a critical advantage that helps avoid costly and disruptive unplanned downtime.
4. Protect the Data
No matter how a manufacturing enterprise decides to embrace the IIoT, one thing is certain: the volume and value of production data will increase dramatically. Ensuring the availability of automation systems and the data they generate and rely on is essential. Organizations must ensure that no data is lost at any point, from the data source on the production floor and the historian database where supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) data is stored to the analytics engines. The closer to the source the data loss is, the greater the impact. Protecting mission-critical automation control systems and data requires a high level of fault tolerance to avoid data loss and business disruption.
Consider the example of the building automation and security industry, which has prioritized fault tolerance. If the data produced by video monitoring systems (VMS) is lost, valuable evidence could be forfeited. If access control systems go down or lose data, building security is compromised. If these systems are virtualized, consolidating multiple applications on a single server, these risks are magnified. To manage the risk, today’s intelligent, distributed building security infrastructures are designed to provide end-to-end fault tolerance at scale.
New Strategies, New Sources of Value
Every industry has its own set of challenges and priorities. But they also have a lot in common when it comes to charting a course to next-generation IIoT automation. Enterprises across the industry spectrum are implementing technology strategies designed to increase their efficiency, productivity and agility—offering important lessons for manufacturers. By embracing standards-based architectures, deploying distributed intelligence, expanding connectivity, and focusing on fault tolerance and availability, manufacturers can unlock new sources of business value, improving their ability to compete profitably in today’s global marketplace.
John Fryer is Senior Director of Industry Solutions at Stratus Technologies.