Currently, Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the hottest buzzwords in industrial automation, and rightly so, since it offers the promise of major value creation by linking machinery beyond production units to higher-level layers and systems. But have factories really started serious integration with the Internet of Things? Where can real-world advantages be found for end users? And what tools can be used to discover them? The interview discusses these topics with Dr. Christopher Anhalt, Business Development Manager at Softing Industrial.
Industrial IoT Starter Kit at a glance
Efficient analysis of production data
- Link of production line to Azure IoT Suite Connected factory in less than a day
- Immediate access to valuable business insights generating improved operational efficiency
- Connection to full range of data sources supported by dataFEED OPC Suite
- No change of security and firewall settings required
- Compliance with OPC UA interoperability standard for industrial communication
- Overall benefit of built-in and proven security
- Application execution in cloud or on premise
- Integration with edge analytics
Ready-to-start scope of delivery
- Minimized configuration and system integration efforts
- Deployment of multiple applications with just one starter kit
- Support of multiple cloud platforms (Microsoft Azure and others)
- Low maintenance costs and investment protection
- Equally suited for deployment in production as well as for proof of concept in lab environments
Question: Mr. Anhalt, what kind of impact is IoT already having on manufacturing in your opinion?
Christopher Anhalt: The key to understanding all of this is IT, since automation solutions and their architectures are now increasingly based on IT. So the term ‘IoT’ actually describes the trend whereby information technology is gaining in importance at various levels of production and in a great many different ways. IT is increasingly responsible for value creation while promoting innovation and is therefore now a driver for change in the factory. One area affected in particular is the technology/software layer: how do devices gain additional functionality? And what role do applications play as overall solutions become ever more complex? On the other hand, as IT merges more and more with production technology, there’s also an organizational level that needs to be considered for end customers: what tasks are now going be managed by the traditional automation unit? What’s the IT department’s job? And how will both departments work together?
Question: So the rising influence of IT is actually changing structures wholesale for manufacturers?
Anhalt: Exactly. This offers key opportunities – but also involves risks. I’ve experienced a whole series of projects where delays have resulted from organizational issues and not because of any technical obstacles. And there’s also another important question – namely the question of relevant market participants: who does the end customer talk to about a new and innovative turnkey solution? Who sits around the table for discussions about setup and execution? Today, these three levels are now clearly visible, and their role will be increasingly important in bringing together IT and OT, i.e. operational technology. These three concepts are now clearly defined, and their role will be increasingly important in bringing together IT and OT, i.e. operational technology.
Question: Is it also a case of the extent to which major IT companies are going to be capable of contributing to automation?
Anhalt: Yes – that’s part of the question about ‘who does what’ in the future. A good example of this is data integration, where it’s not especially clear who has really mastered the topic so far. While this needs conceptual know-how from the world of IT, you need to match this with in-depth domain expertise from automation.
Question: Is it actually even possible to mark out where IoT really starts and ends?
Anhalt: No – IoT is just a general descriptor at the moment. Even if you confine the term to manufacturing, there are still many different aspects – which include cloud, analytics, Big Data, process integration, or the flattening of the automation pyramid. If you take a closer look, these really are quite separate issues. They are best analyzed separately from one another and together produce a nuanced overall picture of what IoT actually means.
Question: So IoT can be used to derive specific solution strategies for all of these approaches?
Anhalt: That’s right. Like its sister buzzword of ‘Industrie 4.0’, the Industrial Internet of Things is an umbrella term, which is used to cover a wide variety of separate and ongoing technological developments.
Question: Can you point to any areas already enjoying concrete benefits today?
Anhalt: The fields of use are very diverse but they can be grouped together. On the one hand, the focus is on optimizing the manufacturing processes: how can improvements be achieved here in terms of quality assurance, availability or efficiency? There are some interesting ideas here in terms of IoT. On the other hand – and considering the runaway success that cloud has enjoyed in enterprise IT – financial aspects have also been a powerful driver for developments here. Instead of spending large sums for hardware and software licenses, you simply use a service. While there are of course running costs, you gain greater flexibility and better scalability. Manufacturing is also certain to make the most of this trend. A third aspect is new business models – and the question of how we can develop innovative products for our customers. As of now, it is difficult to predict the kinds of applications that are still to follow. There is certainly potential for many more.
Question: What is now the ‘state of the art’ in terms of industrial IoT? Are markets now offering all of the pieces of the puzzle so we can get down to business?
Anhalt: I tend to think that technology already offers more options than are actually being utilized by the industry as a whole. But, as I said, this is because of organizational issues. Although that’s not to say that the technical side has no issues of its own – especially in terms of standardization. While we have made some good progress here, such as with the various companion specs for OPC UA, we are certainly still some way away from the finishing line. And in terms of best practice, manufacturing is still at the starting gates. We still need to discover how the new possibilities can be deployed to maximize the utility gained while simultaneously keeping implementation effort as low as possible.
Question: But as the industry starts to tackle these topics, good ideas will surely start to appear automatically?
Anhalt: Customers are certainly now looking for know-how from suppliers, consultants, or IT service providers – and appropriate support for system designs, project handling, and the development of overall solutions is certainly there. As I see it, however, it’s not yet possible to predict who will be handling this field in the future. These topics require knowledge from IT about system architectures, data aggregation, or interface abstraction. At the same time, however, this has to be applied in the automation domain – and that’s something pretty unfamiliar to conventional IT. Vice versa, automation experts lack know-how in these IT specialisms. Who is going to unite these two kinds of competencies? It’s anyone’s guess.
Question: Are you saying that the solutions and devices offered by automation makers aren’t extensive enough?
Anhalt: Additional communication interfaces – for which Softing offers SDKs, for example – are already available and also now being requested. The next step will be to ensure that these standardized interfaces are also integrated with automation equipment. As of today, there’s still a gap that needs to be closed to be able to replace the conventional automation pyramid with a system architecture in which all of the participants can communicate with one another. At the same time, costs for security need to be kept manageable and the reusability of a solution developed in one project for other projects needs to be guaranteed.
Question: Well, some automation providers are already offering IoT devices plus app – for predictive maintenance, for example.
Anhalt: True, but these have largely been silo solutions to date and often good examples of how developments can easily miss requirements targets. Apps are considered a ‘must-have’. But must we really have them in order to operate a plant? That’s a quite different question and one that is still being debated. It’s also a question that needs stronger input from the user side and user requirements. So both sides still have some way to go here.
Question: If we look at the current portfolio of industrial cloud solutions on offer, we can see that it’s being added to by all of these stakeholders – automation experts, machinery makers, and IT service providers. Isn’t this diversity becoming overwhelming for end users?
Anhalt: It’s a fair point. Cloud-to-cloud communication is certainly a topic for standardization that needs to see further development input. Ideally, this will lead to a degree of independence for the end user. For many users, however, the question of which cloud platform to deploy is itself developing into a strategic choice of infrastructure. Just as was the case in the past when selecting a bus protocol or a PLC supplier, for example. Major manufacturing companies are now already doing so. We can see this in terms of how our products are being evaluated: increasingly as connectivity components for a specific cloud platform and no longer standalone in a plant context.
Question: So how is Softing making changes to its portfolio to reflect developments in IoT?
Anhalt: We’re basing a number of activities on the Internet of Things. For our standard product business, this primarily means the next steps in product evolution. After all: software tools and hardware gateways for data integration weren’t first invented by IoT. Quite the opposite: we’ve been providing process and machine data via an OPC interface for SCADA and HMI systems for a great many years now. The aim is now to offer other protocols such as HTTP/REST or MQTT to ensure that our existing portfolio can fulfill IT- and cloud-facing connectivity requirements, and while remaining application- and industry-neutral. If OPC UA manages to establish itself as the standard on the major cloud platforms, this will have huge potential for Softing. An initial product that we are offering in this context is our Industrial IoT Starter Kit. Alongside new products, however, we’re also interested in service provision in the direction of Big Data analytics, with Softing’s data intelligence business segment. Ultimately, the aim here is to build up expertise in how complex algorithms are applied for data analysis, and to apply this knowledge to use cases in the manufacturing industry.
Question: You mentioned the new IoT Starter Kit. Could you say a little more about this?
Anhalt: We first exhibited this product at SPS IPC Drives in 2017. The Kit bundles a GL20 IoT gateway from HP with Microsoft software – Windows Embedded plus two software components that establish dedicated communications with the Azure cloud. Also included is our dataFEED OPC Suite for data collection in the field. This combination means the Industrial IoT Starter Kit is a 2-in-1 package. First, it offers a simple way to set up an end-to-end solution for sending machine and process data to the Azure Connected Factory OEE application. This can typically be implemented inside one working day. At the same time, the Starter Kit is an OPC UA-based data integration product that gives the user a full set of options for later development of the initial solution in a wide variety of directions. This meets exactly the kinds of needs customers have right now. While no-one really doubts the potential IoT offers manufacturing, an immediate ROI is clearly visible only for a handful of use cases. Customers want to proceed at their own pace, and to modify and extend their solution accordingly – and sometimes just discontinue a project. The Starter Kit offers an inexpensive route to this kind of work. In a nutshell: the IoT Starter Kit gives users the opportunity to get started with the Industrial Internet of Things with minimal outlay.
Question: Providers are therefore taking a trial-and-error approach to establish the value-add offered by IoT for the respective applications?
Anhalt: That’s right. You need to zoom in on the bigger picture to find the specific use case. This is where the Industrial IoT Starter Kit offers a solution that requires little effort to try things out and then make a decision: should I now develop this approach in full – or would it be better to start over? This is a scenario familiar to plenty of engineering developers right now.
Question: You emphasize ease-of-use as a key feature: so do end users need any specialized knowledge of IT or automation to use the new Kit?
Anhalt: Our approach is to assume that both sides of the equation – engineers and IT developers – can use the Industrial IoT Starter Kit without specialist knowledge. Some basic expertise is of course required: you have to know how to use the dataFEED OPC Suite in the PLC to access the relevant data. And you need to know your way around the Azure cloud interface – although Connected Factory makes this significantly easier. To be quite honest, we also need to gain relevant experience here for our go-to-market planning. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to seeing which applications and channels will give Softing the strongest traction with the new Starter Kit. After launching our beta version and live demo in fall last year, we now are fully ready to process orders.
Question: Does the end user have a free choice of PLC or is it limited to certain models or manufacturers?
Anhalt: As long as the user has a PLC that is supported by the dataFEED OPC Suite – since this is after all a standard feature – there are no further restrictions. Basically, any of the PLCs now established in Europe and North America can be used.
Question: So, in conclusion, could you say the IoT Starter Kit is designed to give customers a taste of the potential for cloud/IoT applications?
Anhalt: I wouldn’t put it quite like that, since as connectivity providers, we’re not in a position where we can drive user interest in the Internet of Things in a general sense. But yes, once the appetite is there, our Industrial IoT Starter Kit is the perfect tool for trying out some mouth-watering IoT recipes.