Industrial IoT and the Building Blocks for Industry 4.0

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The First Industrial Revolution came about in the late 18th century because it supplied new infrastructure — new building blocks for the economy in the form of steam power and mechanized tools, among others.

The Second Industrial Revolution in the early 20th century benefited from electricity, petroleum and automation.

Similarly, technologies ranging from the advent of the PC, the internet and advances in telecommunications have transformed the economy in recent decades.

Although economists don’t widely agree on the use of the term “Third Industrial Revolution” to describe these advances, the impact of these technological building blocks on the economy is considerable. That’s where Industry 4.0 comes in, which promises a Fourth Industrial Revolution that leverages a series of emerging technologies.

The promise of Industry 4.0 is that new building blocks are available that could fuel a new era of change for industries. IoT and its industrial manifestation, industrial IoT, are two examples. IIoT is an essential building block of this digital revolution. It enables us to use sensing, measuring and monitoring technologies of various descriptions to translate physical processes into digital information. That informational data can then be analyzed and modeled to create digital twins of the physical process, enabling organizations to optimize and test virtual sensor-enhanced models before deploying them in the real world. 

One of the key buildings blocks industrial IoT adopters need to put in place is wireless connectivity. While wired connectivity has doubtlessly enabled a wave of impressive technologies, its sufficiency is increasingly in question as IIoT takes hold. Take manufacturing as an example. Although manufacturers have embraced automation on the assembly line for many decades, the kind of wired networks that they typically use to connect equipment and machinery will not suffice for connecting all of the various IIoT devices that will emerge throughout a factory of the future.

Think of the hundreds and, possibly, thousands of devices that need to be connected. These devices could include asset tracking for tools, spare parts and inventory, environmental monitoring and condition-based monitoring of existing machines to measure performance. You could also add automated guided vehicles, digital personal protective equipment (PPE) to the list, to cite only two other examples. Many of these applications involve mobility. Even for those applications that do not, the cost of wiring is significant. Wireless networks not only support mobility, but they also simplify installation and setup, and reduce costs.

Beyond manufacturing, imagine a vast open-pit mine with autonomous drill and blast machines, autonomous ore truck haulers, remote-controlled loaders and trains, not to mention roaming workers. It is equally clear that mobile, wireless connectivity is critical. The same is true for monitoring patients remotely or collecting data from turbines on an offshore wind farm.

Industrial assets are often mobile. Even if an asset is fixed, it rarely is permanently. This fact is why 4G/LTE and 5G networks are often mentioned in the same breath as Industry 4.0 and IIoT. The 5G wireless standard, which is for the first time being rolled out in a limited way this year, was specifically designed to support IIoT applications. Unlike some wireless network technologies, such as Wi-Fi, cellular technologies are highly secure, 99.999% reliable, and can handle vast numbers of sensors and devices with extremely low latencies. For autonomous applications where response times have to be extremely quick, these considerations are critical.

Many of 5G’s advanced features have been incorporated as updates to the 4G/LTE wireless standard. Internal Nokia studies concluded that 85% of the applications that could be supported by 5G could be supported by 4G/LTE today.

Both 4G/LTE and 5G can be deployed for private networks with small-scale solutions, such as setting up a temporary network for first responders in the case of a natural disaster. They can also enable enormously complex installations that support tens of thousands of devices and users over areas as large as 20,000 square kilometers.

One of the other building blocks for IIoT is multi-access edge computing (MEC). Hauling the information from thousands of sensors to distant data centers in the cloud introduces latencies that make it challenging to respond with sufficient speed for many industrial applications. In the case of video monitoring, for instance, it makes little sense to transport terabytes of streaming video data showing a virtually unchanging picture of the security perimeter. Edge processing allows for very low latencies and can be used to analyze data, including video or audio streams. The technology enables only footage relating to anomalous behavior to be sent to a remote operator might be interested in reviewing.

Fortunately, edge processing resources are part of the 5G architecture, which is a fully virtualized, software-defined network. In other words, the local 5G network can easily host the virtualized edge computing resources needed by the local IIoT applications. It can function, in this sense, as a platform for building various kinds of IIoT-based applications, providing not only digital connectivity but the edge-based compute resources as well.

Along with these technology building blocks, it is also essential for many industries to learn to approach this technology holistically. The promise of smart cities, factories, mines and hospitals is sharing data and intelligence from diverse areas. The real magic of machine learning is to see correlations across vast amounts of data, which would otherwise escape the notice of human analysts. Operations technology (OT) staff often considers technology as an enabler of isolated point solutions. They need to partner more closely with IT, which tends to have a holistic, platform approach to technology. This partnership between OT and IT will be critical for fully realizing the benefits of industrial IoT and supporting technologies such as 5G and edge computing. Such a collaboration, backed by strong executive support, can ensure your technological building blocks are arranged in the best possible way for your business needs.

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