Whether machine control from the cloud will ever become a reality depends on the understanding of what the cloud is, agrees Hilscher’s Pühringer. “Hilscher refers to cloud as a technology—as in using the cloud stack and technologies being developed for cloud applications—and not as topology, such as where cloud means connection to the Internet,” he explains.
It’s unlikely that clouds will be used to do machine control, says Zupan. “There are a couple of factors that need to be considered. The first and most important is human safety. Network communication is susceptible to interruptions and outages. If this were to happen in a machine, people can get hurt. Second is the designed purpose of the cloud environment. Cloud services are excellent resources for aggregating data from various sources and providing fast data analysis. But they don’t operate nearly fast enough to handle machines with complex motion capabilities,” he says.
“Machine control, which is inherently time-sensitive—hard real time—is difficult to achieve with the most common networking technologies and thus with most of today's cloud architectures,” says IIC’s Soley. “Local, private clouds, however, are already controlling machines.”
When a machine is working somewhere in the world, the control is going to have to stay close to that, assures Cisco’s Didier. “There are physics and economics and reliability that drives all of that,” he says. “A lot of data is going to come out. One of the cool concepts out there is that people will want to have a cyberphysical representation of the equipment in the cloud. That doesn’t mean the physical plant will be controlled in the cloud. Optimization and maintenance can be done in the cloud and will filter its way back to the machine. Most machines will have to have some close physical control because of physics, latency and economics. You’ll see highly distributed systems, but a lot of cloud data will be generated. I do think you’ll see cases for doing machine control, but these will be based on these cyberphysical concepts.”
Everything that rises must converge
“The controls industry is conservative and will follow the IT market in a few years after security issues are well-addressed,” predicts Grid Connect’s Justice.
“Look at what the IIoT really means,” says NI’s Walter. “What is the value of a control system converged with standard IT? How do I take my control system and start to separate the functions? If I’m trying to close a loop at 100 KHz, it’s better to push that all the way to the edge. But for IoT, if I have information from a lot of control systems and edge devices, I can put that in an analytics package. Maybe it’s an on-site cloud, or fog. I can get very clean access to the data for on-site computing and have multiple layers of control running concurrently.”
Shop-floor control already executes a large number of tasks, many of which already demand a dependable connection into the office. “A greater convergence between shop floor and office floor will give the system architects a greater flexibility to decide where specific tasks or parts of tasks should be fulfilled,” suggests Festo’s Hoffmeister. “We’ll see a greater integration, fewer gateway solutions and more systems that will benefit from the data richness of shop-floor applications.”
The obvious advantages of a convergence between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) include access to cloud services, improved security and integration with ERP/MES. “It can also include the wider benefits that come from the standardization of technology, such as a deeper engineering talent pool, increased resource sharing and faster innovation,” offers TTTech’s Plankensteiner.
“The convergence of operational systems with information systems can only be of tremendous value in all industries,” explains IIC’s Soley. “It's amazing that the operational control systems—programmable logic controllers— in most factories have not been connected to the information systems of those factories, despite the need to track just-in-time delivery of factory-floor inputs and outputs.”
Mitsubishi Electric Automation has customers in virtually every industry who have integrated production machines with business systems to some degree, says Zupan. “It is used to keep the business system updated on the actual status of work in process, production asset health, inventory management and quality control,” he explains. “A business system can become much more intelligent when production information is provided to it on a regular basis. However, many of these benefits are better delivered by the edge-computing capabilities of the automated assets.” Data can be transformed into useful information and sent to a variety of business system consumers.
With automation and control, multiple networks are deployed, explains Rockwell’s Brooks. “If they’re wireless, having them in the same space makes them interfere with each other,” he says. “We allow cloud-centric applications, discrete devices and service-based delivery of analytics. You get the ability to start having other services that were never in place before. All of those promises are hard to deliver without a converged network architecture in place to support them.”
Connecting the controls network with the enterprise network also enables equipment health monitoring and maintenance. “The ability of connecting entire machines into the cloud allows for real-time data massaging and data analytics and improved overall factory performance, including capabilities such as predictive maintenance,” says B&R’s Germanos.
“Unifying the network communications at the control level with your IT gives you access from remote sites and gives you analytics,” explains Rockwell’s Zuponcic. “It’s required to enable the IIoT. You can’t accomplish it without it.”