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What if remote connectivity became the standard?

June 15, 2022
Edge computing still needs secure data transfer

What could happen if …?

I was pondering that a number of years ago when mobile HMI apps started to appear.

What if the cell phone, or smart phone, became the de-facto standard for plant visualization—not in the way you may be thinking as such, but in a way where all plant data and control would be accessible while being mobile?

Also read: Edge (of space) computing

Imagine having a martini lunch and getting a production alert regarding available inventory, and you immediately make a decision on the recovery and send this decision to the bringer of solutions, and it gets resolved within minutes.

It is happening at some level already, but it will do nothing but accelerate in the next five years. But I said the same in the 1990s about PC-based control.

Rockwell Automation has made two separate purchases in the past 18 months, Fixx Software and Plex Systems.

Both of these companies offer cloud-based solutions and services to most if not all users in a plant environment.

Fixx Software is focused on the maintenance end of the operation, and Plex Systems is more of a process-management tool, which should allow plant-floor-to-top-floor access to real-time critical information and data to make those real-time decisions that everyone craves.

Where will the data come from in order to make these decisions? Everywhere might be a good answer, but that might be a bit vague.

It would not come as a surprise to have SCADA/HMI nodes pass up data to the cloud, as well as PLC/PACs. I recently ran into a solution regarding a process valve that served more than 100 data points associated with its operation. Of course, it could talk to the cloud and deposit these nuggets of grandeur into a database to do whatever you want with them.

Process data in the cloud can be very powerful. The concept of edge computing suggests that devices of all shapes and sizes can feed the cloud with data points. The other component of edge computing is also the ability to make decisions on that data before it is acted upon and/or sent up to the cloud.

Discrete devices are making that transition, as well. I ran into a relative newcomer in the North American market in the discrete solenoid valve market called ODE Valve, an Italian manufacturer.

The IEC-61499 standard suggests that each node in a control system can have characteristics to control and report. I remember a presentation on the concept of highly distributed control at a PLC conference more than 30 years ago. There was a ball-sorting process whereby the devices made the control decisions without the need for a mother ship.

ODE has a valve controller called +Smart, which is a board-based PLC with wireless connectivity and programmed using IEC 61131-3. According to the company, it is Industry 4.0 ready.

In speaking with Andy Rowe, the national sales manager for ODE Valve Canada, he stated that the need for single-device cloud connectivity is a growing trend that ODE has addressed with its output devices. “The need and push for data in the cloud is a function of the process or machine. The technology the user or OEM chooses must be able to facilitate this desire. ODE provides that technology.”

I am sure that the push toward message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT), a low-overhead cloud-based protocol, will grow over time and allow the plant floor to serve any and all data for cloud-based interpretation.

Security remains an issue, however. While it is really nice and cool to have your data reside in the cloud, it also must have secured access. This is something that can’t be taken for granted.

Intellectual property has been stolen by state actors from multinational companies for many years. If cloud storage holds the key to how they get the caramilk in the caramilk bar, and it is stolen somehow, it is no longer a secret and can be cloned.

Recipe data is crucial to any beer maker. When I did work on a data-extraction system for Molson Breweries, I had to sign an non-disclosure agreement (NDA) because I had access to the recipes of all of their beer brands. Beer drinkers demand consistency and access to their favorite brew. No other can taste the same. Losing that edge would be very bad for the brand.

So, edge computing along with cloud access will change the landscape of discrete and process control alike. I am excited to see what comes out of the marriage of companies that span the IT and OT worlds.

About the author: Jeremy Pollard
About the Author

Jeremy Pollard | CET

Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Pollard has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 25 years.

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