Let the Machines Talk

M2M Communications Evolves From Simple Operator Alerts to Machine Interactions Without Need for Operator Involvement

Aaron HandBy Aaron Hand, Managing Editor

Although M2M communications is nothing new, it is still in a state of evolution, its capabilities growing into its title, so to speak. M2M generally stands for machine-to-machine, but it more often than not has resembled something more akin to machine-to-man, in which a machine on one end alerts an operator somewhere else that it is in need of attention.

It's unquestionably useful for an operator to be able to log into remote or hazardous locations to check on the health of a machine, and even troubleshoot to a point, but M2M diagnostics could be so much more. The next step is for the machine to not just monitor, but also take action—something's that happening very little at this point, according to Mahesh Patel, director of product management, wireless solutions, at Sixnet (www.sixnet.com). "It may happen maybe 1-5% of the time," he says. "It's mostly taking the information, and someone else is doing the action."

As technology progresses, M2M will become a tool that can increasingly save operators from the day-to-day drudgery of decision-making. Most machines aren't there yet, Patel says, but based on what he's seen in the past six months, it will be a very fast adoption rate. "They're starting to move from not just gathering data, but really doing the action control, and really getting to the M2M world."

Process industries have been doing M2M for decades, according to Rob Schneider, product manager, remote access, for Rockwell Automation (www.rockwellautomation.com), but now discrete automation is adopting more of those engineering technologies. "Instead of one device simply telling another device to turn on or turn off, there's much more data now," he says, mentioning run rates, anticipated product changes, etc.

An example is in cheese processing, in which incoming products vary in the amount of water contained in each. "When they get the incoming material, they have to take readings on that material, and then can adjust the heat in the machine to take water out to the degree that they need to," Schneider says. The temperature at which the water has to be heated then affects the next process in the line, so having the machines communicate that information to one another is helpful.

Ethernet's Role

Part of what makes machine-to-machine interaction more realizable today are Ethernet-friendly protocols such as DeviceNet, Profinet and Profibus, Patel says. "Therefore, machines can talk to machines without an operator interpreting. This sets the stage for more machine-to-machine communication."

This is in stark contrast to what M2M was 20 years ago—typically large equipment "phoning home" via a modem and dedicated phone line if there was a problem, says Brian Anderson, vice president of marketing at Sierra Wireless (www.sierrawireless.com). The convergence of networks on the manufacturing floor, with Ethernet-based networking protocols appearing down at the device level, enables people to get where they want, adds Schneider. "They can improve the uptime of a machine, getting materials there at the right time, getting machines up running faster if there is a problem," he says.

Rockwell Automation focuses on EtherNet/IP, the ODVA standard for Ethernet. "We really go out of our way to make sure we're utilizing standard Ethernet technologies," says Mike Hannah, marketing manager, networks business for Rockwell. "It makes things easier to integrate when you're trying to do machine to machine. There are many different vendors, and you want those machines to be able to talk nicely to each other. That's what EtherNet/IP allows them to do."

Ethernet technology has advanced a lot over the years, Hannah adds, including full duplex, cross-checking, switching advances and higher speeds. "All those technologies are allowing our customers and machine builders to leverage Ethernet at the device level."

Casting a larger net, 3G and 4G networks, the Internet and satellite communications are enabling more plant-to-plant communications as well. "These things are making data flow between entities much more real time, [with] much more volume," Schneider says.

The accelerating use of wireless connectivity also changes the face of M2M communications, Anderson says. "It's becoming more possible because the price of the communication is getting cheaper. The price of hardware to make that connection has gone down. It's opening up all new possibilities of things that can be connected."

The 802.11n standard is a major step forward in wireless control because of speed and reliability, Schneider says. "It was not necessarily there with 802.11a, b or g."

An example of M2M being used at the cutting edge of consumer technologies is in electric vehicle charging stations, which send data out to servers to let drivers know where the open charging stations are or what diagnostics need to be performed. Sierra Wireless provides cellular capabilities to Schneider Electric for just such an application.

"In terms of the industrial world, economics and safety are two big drivers," Anderson says. "If you can drive better value for your customers by better uptime, faster service or better performance guarantees…then that's going to be valuable."

A trend that Anderson sees possible through M2M communications is for machine builders to earn more revenue as service providers rather than just sellers of capital equipment. In an office environment, copier manufacturers find that they can ensure more revenue by offering copying services (charging a price per copy) than by simply selling copiers. So cellular technology monitors the copy counts to go back to the service provider for billing. This idea is beginning to catch on with machine builders in industry. "If your machine is producing 100,000 plastic bottles a day, because you're monitoring it, now you can be responsible for the performance of it, the service of it, and billing is based on that," Anderson says. "It opens up new business models."

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