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The tools of IIoT continue to gain momentum

March 29, 2022
Smart devices and Ethernet connectivity are the future

As more manufacturers realize the value of data collection and analytics, the demand for components with built-in intelligence and connectivity continues to grow. But how far along is the fourth industrial revolution at this point? How much of the automation that’s being implemented includes smart devices with Ethernet connectivity?

“Automation solutions with smart Ethernet connection are still in the minority at the device level,” says Freeman Smith, founder, Nufactur. “However, most PLCs are using an Ethernet-based protocol, so the switch to smart IIoT devices is possible. With the emergence of affordable SCADA systems, I/O masters and a more mature Ethernet architecture in automation, the next 10 years should see a massive rise in smart Ethernet-connected devices. These smart IIoT devices will transform the way traditional manufacturers improve their processes by enabling predictive maintenance and data analytics.”

Also read: COVID-19 pandemic impacts supply chain, Industry 4.0 and 5G

The Industrial Internet of Things is dictating the need for more and more connectivity to plantwide systems for a variety of needs, explains Bob White, technical sales manager, Nippon Pulse. “The ability to monitor systems to aid in predictive maintenance and to collect production data helps improve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). This is a given if the supplier wants to participate in the current industrial market,” he says.

“As we move into 2022, the shift to smart devices with Ethernet connectivity continues to be strong,” says Brian Jaeger, technical content developer, Maple Systems. “Customers see the value in standardizing on Ethernet as it reduces cabling and connector headaches that come with the older proprietary networks or the limitations of serial connections. Ethernet also increases functionality by allowing multiple protocols at the same time, further simplifying device wiring and connections in the field.”

Virtually all new automation being implemented includes smart devices with Ethernet connectivity, says John MacDougall, manager of industrial channel sales, Phoenix Contact USA. “In light of all of the ICS/OT cybersecurity issues that have occurred in recent years, the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, IIoT or whatever you’d like to call it requires automation and control hardware devices with Ethernet connectivity,” he says. “Every customer wants more access to data and analytics, relative to their operational technology. Data is the new oil. The megatrend of industrial companies making better use of data is going to continue. That means more connected devices.”

Ninety-eight percent of all cars sold have automatic transmissions because that’s what the majority of consumers want, explains MacDougall. “There are still some gearheads, AKA automotive enthusiasts, who prefer standard transmissions, but that’s a clear minority,” he says. “The same is true with Ethernet-connected automation and control hardware. The majority want networked devices. We still see some applications and industries—nuclear, for example—that prefer serial data communications over Ethernet-enabled devices because of its inherent security.”

Smart, connected devices and equipment are absolutely becoming the norm, agrees Aric Prost, senior global director OEM at Stratus Technologies. “The lower cost of sensors has removed prior pricing barriers and opened the door to more condition-based monitoring, predictive maintenance and asset performance opportunities,” he says. “The hurdle now is bandwidth limitations for equipment in edge locations. With additional sensors and advanced applications hungry for data, the challenge is processing data locally and delivering it to local control rooms or the cloud to drive AI or asset performance solutions.”

These connected devices also require local compute power deployed through edge computing, says Prost. “These platforms must run efficiently, must be built for rugged edge environments, must deliver reliability and must be operated by OT staff,” he says.

“There are certainly an increasing number of field devices that have Ethernet connectivity and varying degrees of intelligence,” says Arun Sinha, director of business development, Opto 22. “The need for broader distribution of operational-technology (OT) data is the main driver behind this. That said, basic discrete and analog signals still make the most sense for many sensors, instrumentation and controls and will continue to play a vital role in digital transformation.”

The exception may be in the proliferation seen in connections to Ethernet-based devices that include edge-computing functionality, says Sinha. “There is a cost to making every device smart, so edge devices that can aggregate many dumb signals and do something smart with them seems to strike a balance that customers are happy with,” he explains.

“Almost everything being implemented has some kind of connectivity involved, because it’s not enough to automate a task and simply collect data; most everyone wants to be able to analyze that data and take actions from the insights gained,” says Eric Wendt, director of automation and electrical products for Digi-Key Electronics. “I’d expect versions of Ethernet to continue being standard for connectivity.”

Many of the devices used in Ambi Robotics systems use Ethernet connectivity, its preferred method of communication, says Jeff Mahler, co-founder and CTO at Ambi Robotics. “There are still a number of devices that require serial, USB or other forms of connectivity,” he explains. “Reasons may vary: availability of legacy drivers, optimization for a specific use case or dependence on proprietary cabling.”

In its configurable AI-powered robotics system for warehouse automation, Ambi Robotics is able to expand from core building blocks that it designs to create systems that solve difficult material-handling problems, explains Mahler. “Ethernet connectivity within input/output (I/O) blocks enables us to plug-and-play various system modules together,” he says. “We often bake in future configurability to our systems so we can continue to provide our customers with added functionality for months and years into the deployments of our systems. The only way for us to do this effectively is by leveraging a shared Ethernet network throughout the system.”

All OnRobot tools are Ethernet-capable, explains Kristian Hulgard, general manager, Americas, OnRobot. “A device is smart if it helps manufacturers to tweak and optimize existing applications,” he clarifies. “Lean manufacturing and Industry 4.0 are not just buzz words. Our customers want actionable insights into how well a collaborative application is performing; they want live device diagnostics, alerts and preventive maintenance measures to keep costly robot cell downtime to a minimum.”

One OnRobot initiative to lend expertise to its users is the launch of WebLytics, a production-monitoring and data-analytics solution designed to enhance productivity and minimize downtime (Figure 1). Capable of monitoring the performance of multiple collaborative applications simultaneously and in real time, WebLytics gathers equipment data from both robots and tools and transforms it into visualized device- and application-level intelligence, explains Hulgard.

“Nearly every new automation product these days has some form of connectivity option,” explains Jon Towslee, senior director of iFactory sales, Advantech. “We are seeing Ethernet emerge as the de facto standard; that makes it much easier to bridge the IT/OT data connection world as these two communities continue to converge in the IIoT, Industry 4.0 and digital-transformation areas.”

The trend not only bridges the factory-floor and the enterprise-network worlds, but it links industry with automation developments in the consumer realm, as well.

“Smart devices have been exponentially increasing in industrial applications and mimic the consumer world,” notes Dave Cameron, director of sales—automation & electrification, Bosch Rexroth. “There are several standard connectivity options and protocols available to use—industrial-Ethernet-based, Wi-Fi, 5G—depending on the application.”

The continuous adoption of the latest technology is happening and makes sense to realize benefits in manufacturing, says Cameron. “Time-to-market is key for many companies, and the use of great design tools and smart products allows this to happen,” he explains, adding that adopting the latest technology also translates into flexible, cost-effective manufacturing.

“For a host of evolving operational reasons, customers are demanding more connectivity and information from their production assets every day,” says Lance Fuhr, director of channel excellence, Honeywell Process Solutions.

“Considering that we are experts in the secure transfer and management of machine data while securely isolating OT and IT networks, the availability of Ethernet-based smart devices is music to our ears,” says Brandon Ellis, owner and president of elliTek. “We do promote caution as we work with our customers’ IT and engineering departments to determine a reasonable risk assessment of their overall exposure, especially when higher-risk cloud-based or 5G cellular connections are being considered.”

Risk considerations aside, most automation that is being implemented now has some sort of connectivity, confirms Brian O’Connor, vice president, marketing, Aerotech. “Plant managers, operations teams and engineers need to have easy access to their equipment for maintenance planning and utilization measurements. Connectivity, such as Ethernet, on the automation equipment makes this possible,” he says.

“Well over 75% of the products we sell are smart devices with Ethernet connectivity,” says Nathan Smith, channel sales director, Advantech. “As the automation markets migrate toward digital transformation, smart edge devices and connectivity are a key part of this transformation.”

About the author: Mike Bacidore
About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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