Automation IIoT

IIoT Bridges Industrial Islands

EP Editorial Staff | June 15, 2020

The newest IIoT-capable I/O and controllers make it practical to connect, monitor, and control standalone production and facilities equipment.

By Josh Eastburn, Opto 22

Plant floor and facility data comes in many varieties and serves different purposes. It’s obtained from plant sensors and smart systems located at what is often termed the operational “edge” of network connectivity.

Sometimes end users simply want to monitor a key performance indicator (KPI) such as a temperature or production rate. Other times they may need to be notified if a subsystem is in alarm. More advanced applications require computations to, for example:

• integrate and coordinate with a higher-level manufacturing execution system (MES)
• determine overall equipment effectiveness (OEE)
• support maintenance and asset-management systems.

Imagine how much money could be saved if an early warning of high temperature for a refrigeration system notified the team in time to call in service before product was wasted. How much safer and less expensive would it be for a facility to monitor sump pump status and levels without requiring operators to make rounds? Connecting with operational data is fundamental for OEE and MES initiatives, but how should this functionality be added?

Making the Connection

In many facilities, processing and packaging lines are assembled by linking a variety of equipment, each with its own programmable logic controller (PLC) automation and upstream/downstream interlocks. Newer assets may be available with a wired Ethernet or wi-fi connection, but most in-place processes involve older equipment as well.

Users can connect to these systems for configuration and monitoring, but it may not be as simple as they’d like. Technical complexity arises due to numerous communication protocols, tagging methods, and data-processing considerations. For legacy equipment, often other intermediate gateway devices are needed.

Even for the most basic case, in which a single sensor or electrical contact must be monitored, users must typically design, install, program, and integrate a PLC. If existing controllers and gateways are available, these require consolidation through a PC-based system and then careful network configuration to get data out to the cloud.

Once installed, this type of complex configuration often proves unreliable and difficult to maintain. All intermediate steps represent potential points of failure. Software upgrades or network changes anywhere along the way can disrupt operation.

Making it Simple

Given this complexity, many users are searching for a plug-and-play solution, a simpler way to monitor their operating assets and communicate useful data. Although much of the buzz about the industrial internet of things (IIoT) focuses solely on smart sensors, vendors are also responding by creating products to improve connectivity among all kinds of sensors, automation devices, and personnel.

Industrial edge computing provides one approach. This IIoT-capable technology stack condenses multiple layers of hardware and software for I/O sensing, control, networking, and data processing into a single, simplified layer, able to connect the plant floor directly to the cloud.

In addition to flattening the architecture, industrial edge computing devices embed modern tools that ease system componentintegration, even for legacy equipment. As network-oriented devices, they often include standard information technology (IT) security features such as user authentication, data encryption, and certificate management.

Combined with support for open-platform communication (OPC), they can securely integrate data from a variety of legacy systems without relying on a Windows PC. They also support modern communication protocols such as MQTT (formerly MQ Telemetry Transport) with Sparkplug B for mission-critical system monitoring and efficient communication with applications and IIoT platforms.

For monitoring and control, edge computing devices simplify connectivity with PC-based and mobile HMI software. In applications where predictive maintenance or business intelligence is the end goal, edge computing shifts data preprocessing for normalization and sanitization to the plant floor. This offloads the burden from higher-level computing resources, conserving bandwidth and ensuring high-fidelity data.

Edge I/O devices and edge controllers are two emerging choices for edge-computing hardware. Edge I/O provides greater processing capability than simple remote I/O systems, while edge controllers provide real-time director control, combined with general-purpose computing, similar to a PC.

Edge I/O, edge controllers

Unlike traditional remote I/O, edge I/O is capable of standalone operation without a PLC. The hardware is suitable for easy field installation, even in hazardous areas, and connects to a variety of I/O signal types, processing signal data locally and communicating directly with on-site or cloud-based systems.

When an application calls for more than just I/O capability, an edge controller adds real-time control, device connectivity, and heavier data processing. It can be used to automate equipment just like a classic PLC, but it can also act as a communication gateway to integrate existing equipment and devices, even across disparate networks. Edge controllers can communicate with existing PLCs using native protocols and then efficiently transform and publish that data through MQTT or directly into databases using IoT languages such as Node-RED. The additional horsepower that edge controllers provide can also be used to host local visualization and database servers or to run custom applications, further reducing the need for PCs on the plant floor.

Next-Level Integration

Industrial edge computing is a foundational technology for securely integrating equipment and aggregating data, necessary for performing deeper analytics across a fleet of equipment. With increased networking and internet connectivity, security and data integrity have also become important considerations.

For many users, the ability to remotely keep an eye on operating assets is sufficient. Other users will take advantage of edge devices to make their systems more secure, efficient, intelligent, or reliable at a local level. In all cases, edge I/O devices and edge controllers are now making it practical for users to easily connect to any of their equipment and begin realizing value. EP

Josh Eastburn is Director of Technical Marketing at Opto 22, Temecula, CA, opto22.com, a manufacturer of hardware and software products for industrial automation, remote monitoring, and data acquisition. Prior to joining Opto 22, he worked as an automation engineer in the semiconductor, petrochemical, food and beverage, and life sciences industries.

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