How is hardware driving the IIoT revolution?
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) revolution (or Industry 4.0) is already creating smarter factory floors filled with advanced sensor technologies, machine-to-machine communications, real-time data analytics and machine learning capabilities. These enable manufacturers to gain valuable insights on how to streamline processes, improve quality and overall supply chain efficiency.
These hardware and software tools allow for visualisation, automation, trend detection and greater precision, giving a more holistic view of the entire manufacturing processes.
Although hardware and software need to work hand-in-hand for the IIoT to succeed, the software typically receives all of the notoriety, while the hardware goes virtually unnoticed. However, IIoT wouldn’t even exist without the hardware powering it. By exploring some of the ways that hardware is driving this wave of manufacturing, we can begin to understand how important it is for the present and future of IIoT.
The smart factory is an example of hardware enabling progress in modern production efficiency. This represents the convergence of physical production systems with the communication and control of the virtual world. Responding to the need for shorter product lifecycles, rapid changes in demand, and the growing requirement for product personalisation, modern factories will leverage machinery and automation, which can communicate with other equipment and even with other manufacturing plants. Driven by Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), these systems can quickly re-configure production schedules and anticipate bottlenecks and equipment problems in order to achieve drastically improved flexibility.
In order to function near-perfectly, these modern factories will depend on a variety of hardware including embedded computers, M2M communications modules, barcode scanners, 3D printers, as well as gateways and other network equipment. Sensors which monitor machine functions and the switches used by operators to interface with each device serve as the foundation for all this modern hardware.
Unlike its consumer-facing IoT counterpart, IIoT is going to introduce a different type of connected device to the world with totally different specifications and requirements. Rather than the sleek buttons and switches on delicate consumer electronics, like an iPhone or Fitbit, industrial connected devices will require added durability and functionality. The ability to perform reliably in harsh environments, across wide temperature ranges, and have the durability to last the life of modern production equipment are key requirements for the switches used on today’s industrial Man Machine Interfaces (MMI’s). While it can be annoying when consumer tech doesn’t work correctly, industrial workers may be put into life-threatening situations if one of their devices malfunctions.
Because of the serious nature of IIoT – and the potentially disastrous consequences if not handled right – there has been a recent movement to establish better security standards, specifically for its use. This is the basis for the creation of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), which comprises more than 25 organisations and companies, including AT&T, Cisco Systems, General Electric, IBM and Intel, contributing to a new IIoT security framework. One of the major goals of the IIC is working toward securing hardware components, such as sensors, valves and motors, capable of communicating with IT systems that can control the machinery and analyse data from the equipment. According to a recent interview with Jesus Molina, Co-Chair of the IIC’s security working group, immature security may be the biggest factor delaying the adoption of IIoT. He also added that components commonly used in enterprise IT security don’t really exist yet in IoT (let alone the IIoT). However, with groups like the IIC bringing IIoT security concerns to the forefront, the industry is headed in the right direction.
So what does all of this mean for the factories of the future, themselves? According to IDC Manufacturing Insights, within the next five years, nearly half of all manufacturers will produce modular platforms at centralised locations and leverage regional smaller factories to tailor final products to local demand. As a result, manufacturers will need to coordinate global plant floor level execution across the companies’ and suppliers’ networks. If done right, IIoT will streamline historically manual processes, improving flexibility and efficiency, and enabling what IDC refers to as the transition from the traditional Make To Stock (MTS) approach to Make To Individual (MTI) production.
In addition to the controlling IT products such as MES, ERP, and PLM, the hardware which makes up these networked industrial systems will play a key role in its overall capability and reliability. High-performance components such as switches and sensors will enable IIoT hardware to function consistently over the life of the equipment. C&K is one component supplier helping to do this, with products ranging from the versatile, high cycle life KSC tact switch series used in applications such as pressure transmitters and barcode scanners to the high performance 7000 series of toggle and rocker switches, used in 3D printers. There’s also the K5AT illuminated tact switches used for mobile robotics in warehouse automation applications, and for industrial networking equipment, C&K also offers a line of high-performance SIM card sockets for M2M modems, as well as their RTE coded rotary DIP, commonly used for network addressing on industrial ethernet switches and gateways. All products are designed to function in the harsh environments associated with IIoT applications.
With the IIoT expected to reach a market value of $151bn by 2020, it’s clear that the industry is not slowing down anytime soon, but the key to its success hinges on the hardware components helping drive it to the next level.