Understand IIoT technology for a Smart Factory future

The Smart Factory Task Group, within the Industrial Internet Consortium, is a complex group that is pulling together several testbeds for the IIoT in manufacturing automation.

By Dave Perkon, technical editor

Developing and using technology for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is filled with complexities. The Smart Factory Task Group (SFTG) within the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) is helping end users and machine builders to navigate those complexities and become participants in the Industrial Internet revolution.

Calvin Smith headshot thumb"Much of what you hear about the Internet of Things (IoT), such as Fitbit, Nest or a connected scale or refrigerator, is from the consumer side," says Calvin Smith, business lead of IoT strategy at Dell EMC. "However, one thing analysts in the IoT space seem to agree upon is that roughly 70% of the revenue in the IoT today, and likely in the future, is on the enterprise side. The largest vertical in that is manufacturing."

Smith is aware of the potential impact the IIoT can have in a number of markets and verticals. "There is significant revenue potential, and there is a lot of cool stuff that has already been done in the smart factory space."

The numbers vary, but, depending on who you talk to, there are somewhere between 30 and 50 standard bodies and consortia that focus on IoT right now, says Smith. "For some organizations, it is difficult to make a decision on which to join or where to be most prevalent," he says. "The Industrial Internet Consortium is a global public-private organization of more than 270 members, formed to accelerate the development, adoption and widespread use of interconnected machines and devices, intelligent analytics and people at work. Although they are not standards-focused, which is an important piece of the IoT in general, they are more about getting people together, forming consortia and making some collective decisions and putting together reference architectures and testbeds."

Essentially, the IIC wants to test out and prove things in the IoT and make them real today as opposed to getting together and talking about things that might become real over an extended period of time, continues Smith. "The IIC is much more about execution and cross-knitted solutions by different member organizations," he says. "This includes large enterprises, subject matter expert medium-size businesses, small businesses and startups, as well,” he says.

Groups and tasks

Erik Color White Informal Headshot thumb"The IIC structure includes several working groups managed by full-time staff," explains Erik Walenza, CEO, IoT One, Shanghai, China. "There are working groups covering areas such as marketing, security and technology. Under each working group there are task groups that do the core work and are run by the members. The Smart Factory Task Group is under the Marketing Working Group, which means our focus is less on creating new technology and more on aggregating information and putting it into a format that makes sense to business decision makers (Figure 1)."

Testbeds are the heart of the IIC and are driven by hardware companies, software companies and integrators who create and test technology solutions for the IIoT, says Walenza. "The SFTG is tasked to look at this IIoT technology and present how a machine builder can integrate it into its product offering for the factory floor," he says. "We are looking at ways to upgrade an end user's five-year-old equipment to work with the IIoT without completely replacing the control system to get there. We are educating end users on how to work within the legacy environment to adopt new technologies and enable IIoT-connected solutions."

Smart Factory Task Group advancing the IoT

John Kowal thumb"Smart Factory is an important group for manufacturing automation, and the timing is right," says John Kowal, director, business development, B&R Industrial Automation. "We have the chance now to create standards and best practices before proprietary or quasistandards are adopted."

Kowal wants to make sure standards meeting the specific requirements of manufacturing automation are in place before everything in the IIoT gets developed, so it doesn't end up like OEE, for example. "With OEE, everyone does it their own way," he says. "The Smart Factory and the testbed working groups are working to make the new industrial Internet technologies, applications, products, services and processes interoperable, relevant to the manufacturing community and robust. This is a chance, especially with technologies, such as time-sensitive networking (TSN) and OPC-UA, to develop some standards-based solutions that are suitable for manufacturing automation-specific requirements such as determinism and real-time response in the IIoT (Figure 2).”

It's amazing to the IT people in the IIC that manufacturing industries' operational technology (OT) is based on proprietary standards that aren’t fully interoperable, continues Kowal. "It's not like the IT world where they can go in and plug stuff together. If we didn’t have the Smart Factory Task Group, the IIC as a whole may not have known to address manufacturing standards. B&R is addressing these issues by basing its products on mainstream computing technology, just like IT. The overriding need for interoperability to achieve the IIoT is convincing the big players to adopt because they will follow the money, which is the analytics business.”

Flattening the network for IIoT

"As the IIoT standardizes, I don't think the measure of success will be how many industrial networks have been installed, but how many corporate networks were flattened down to one level so the ERP system can talk directly to the machine control," says B&R's Kowal. "That is actually what B&R Industrial Automation is doing in our own smart factory in Eggelsberg, Austria, to achieve batch-of-one manufacturing. And we’ve been doing it for nearly a decade. Security in the IIoT is always important. Corporate IT departments may say, ‘No, don't do that,’ but, if you don't tackle the issue of secure access, I don't think you are going to have IIoT."

In B&R’s smart factory, the ERP system talks directly to the controllers, continues Kowal. "We don't have an MES or a warehouse management system," he says. "We use the ERP system, connected through OPC-UA and XML. It's telling the automated storage retrieval system (ASRS) which parts to pull, and then it watches which parts are used most often and moves them closer to the front shelves to reduce travel distance required."

This flat hierarchy is the brass ring, says Kowal. "If you have to go through several gateways and several different network types, you are not quite going to get where you want to go," he says. "The IIC actually has an IT/OT task group, and they have announced this is not about technology. This is about culture, and IT and OT have to start working together."

Again, security is very important. "The more you hear about potential security problems, the more you have to agree with that and design accordingly,” says Kowal. "However, the OT side is where you make your money (Figure 3).That's where the C-suite needs to get together and say, 'We are going to do this; what's the best way to do it?’"

There are many other groups in the IIC, such as the Security Working Group. "It came up with an Industrial Internet Security Framework (IISF) in September 2016," says Kowal. "The group will be coming out with best practices to secure IIoT systems as well," he says.

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Do IIoT right

"The Smart Factory Task Group really focuses on what is different about manufacturing IIoT,” says B&R's Kowal. "We are working hard to not reinvent the wheel. If someone else is already working on a standard, we want to reference that," he says. "We are also focusing on how mid-market manufacturers can benefit and start to participate. Some Smart Factory members are focused on brownfield. We’re also looking at what I call a ‘green patch’ in a brownfield.  You may not be in a position to build a greenfield facility, but you may have a product or process that would benefit from building a dedicated line within your existing facility that’s pure-play IIoT.  Think of the focused factory and factory-within-a-factory concepts."

The IIC and the SFTG has their work cut out for them, says Dell's Smith. "It would be great to just buy a single IoT platform and be done with it," he says. "The good news is people are thinking about this; there are plenty of answers on what to use as an IoT platform. However, it's complicated—most large enterprises are buying multiple platforms to suit different needs. The bad news is there are too many answers. At latest count from our tracking, there are more than 420 IoT platforms out there now. And most are generic and horizontal, not necessarily related to smart factories. That's too many options."

Which IoT platform to use is not an easy decision, continues Smith. "It's something where, as an industry and in manufacturing, people need to analyze and weigh multiple options before making a decision," he says. "With IoT, what is particularly interesting is where IT meets OT—IT being the traditional data, infrastructure and management of the data, and OT being the need for business decisions to be made based on the use case you are deploying. With the IoT, Dell often speaks with both the CIO and the factory manager or business-line VP, for example. You need to talk to both in order for IoT purchasing decisions to be directly correlated to tangible ROI for the business. You need to start with the business need and use case and then decide what technology will enable it.”

The SFTG is focused on the end user and OEMs, says IoT One's Walenza. "The IIC has been very successful in addressing technology providers, the original members, and helping them to collaborate with each other," he says. "The IIC is working to communicate what has been learned to end users, and the members feel very strongly about educating the end users and OEMs. They want the work they have been doing to be known, influence the market and educate their customers. That's really the SFTG focus on the end-user side."

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