It all starts with data collection. That’s at the root of all of these digital transformation efforts. Collecting the info that informs insights that make you run smarter, faster, more reliably... better.
And, of course, there are a wide range of requirements with data collection, which depend to varying degrees on how you plan to use the data you collect.
But there are new consumers of industrial data who want - right now! - opportunities to improve efficiency, improve profitability or prevent downtime in ways that were not possible before. They don’t care about requirements or challenges... they just want solutions. Cloud services and scalable storage are certainly drivers for this trend. Our controllers, for example, supoprt the mainstream protocols commonly deployed in factories, but also add new messaging schemes like MQTT and REST APIs to support these new applications.
There are challenges with these approaches, for sure. Cloud providers have their own set of APIs and services unique to their solution. Customers who are looking to adopt a cloud platform need to consider how portable their data is and how easily they can tie into existing systems within their organization. While adopting a hosted-cloud solution might make sense in some cases and is often faster to deploy, it may prove more difficult to transition assets and the related data to other platforms down the road. A controller that allows for open development, such as the WAGO PFC200 which runs Linux will generally support more platforms than a closed system and provide more options if requirements change in the future.
The good news: things are getting easier.
Technology is maturing and becoming better understood by consumers. Many proprietary IIoT communications, leaving the integrator to determine how the JSON payload is structured; this adds flexibility but can also create interoperability challenges. (specifications like Sparkplug help by defining the namespace to address this challenge. Note: while Sparkplug B is supported by WAGO and a few SCADA systems like Inductive Automation’s Ignition, relatively few cloud platforms have formally adopted it yet.)
IS SEAMLESS DATA COLLECTION REALLY A POSSIBILITY?
Short answer: yes.
Seamless data collectoin looks promising with some of the newer edge agents; the Linux foundation has adopted a platform, FLEDGE, that incorporates a REST API to configure the gateway service that includes devices (south services). Additionally, it uses a plugin system to add features like scaling, event notifications, buffering and custom python scripting. The goal is to develop a system that supports the most common cloud platforms and historians while keeping it simple and scalable.
After the seamless consideration comes the question of security, which is always a concern when we’re talking about data collection. (All of these new approaches are wonderful, until you get hacked.) Most IIoT protocols offer some form of encryption, typically SSL/TLS which is used for publishing data over the internet and is the primary method used in WAGO’s controllers for data collection. While this is considered to be safe from man-in-themiddle attacks, the certificates must remain secure. It is important to look at how secure the premises are, and the means by which bad actors can access the physical edge device. The last line of defense is the device’s root password and what ports might be exploitable.
SO HOW DOES THIS ALL TIE INTO THE INDUSTRIAL INTERNET OF THINGS?
Many customers see the value in data collection and are open to new ways of solving this problem. This is a good thing.
Newer protocols offer many advantages to legacy SCADA methodologies and are more costeffective in many cases. IIoT has benefited in many respects from the investments made in IoT, deployed in consumer devices and it is very likely that this trend will only continue.
Cloud platforms are evolving constantly, and each new service that gets added brings new capabilities. For example, if you are using AWS Greengrass on a WAGO PFC200, and AWS releases a new ML service, a customer can easily adopt this new feature. On proprietary systems, a new driver or update used to mean installing and licensing new software on multiple servers and hoping there are no conflicts. Fortunately, this labor-intensive task might soon be a thing of the past.
Data collection, storage and retrieval is the first step in a digital transformation. Many cloud agents have the ability to orchestrate and manage your assets in a centralized way, allowing changes to be scheduled and rolled back as necessary. In addition, it’s also currently possible to remotely deploy code to a group of edge devices for non-realtime tasks. This is a fundamental change in the way controllers can be programmed and managed, and has the potential to have a significant impact on our industry.
Developing on industrial-control systems is a slightly different skill set compared to working with cloud platforms. The workflow is very different, and requires a broader base of knowledge on topics like networking, security and higher level language programming. These skills are being taught at the university level now, so the newer generation of engineers will likely already have these skills; the challenge is making the process easier for existing workforce that has not had the exposure to these disciplines. WAGO controllers support the existing programming languages found in IEC 61131, but also add new capabilities with the Linux environment, which eases adoption by either camp.
Central to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) approach is edge computing... collecting and processing data right where it is being generated. There is a lot happening in the edge of network space. MS Azure and AWS Greengrass have the ability to deploy containerized Docker applications and custom micro-services. This is an enabling technology that greatly simplifies software development and testing, which is more in line with mainstream software development.
WAGO has adopted an open and easy approach to industrial controls, supporting IIoT as well. This is accomplished by designing controllers that support established protocols and programming specifications while at the same time extending support for new solutions or hybrid control schemes. This gives controls engineers flexibility to deploy the software applications that best meet their design goals. And that prompts wider adoption.
The IIoT will continue to have a positive impact on manufacturing, and over time will become easier to implement. Innovation requires a new way of thinking, and I am optimistic that cloud platforms offer such advantages that this approach will soon become the standard.
Text: Kurt Braun: WAGO