Digitalization's toolkit on display at Hannover

A global showcase for industrial digital transformation.

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By Keith Larson, Smart Industry editor in chief 

Ever since Germany staked out its national vision of Industrie 4.0—the ongoing digitalization of manufacturing substantial and far-reaching enough to constitute a fourth industrial revolution—the displays at Hannover Messe, Germany’s largest industrial trade fair, have served as an annual progress report on the global uptake of transformative new digital technologies and business models.smart industry iot iiot industrial internet of things digital transformation

I count myself fortunate to have been among the more than 200,000 delegates to visit in April the nearly 6,000 exhibitor stands from companies around the world spread across the sprawling fairground campus on the outskirts of Hannover. Doing justice to the full scope of Hannover does indeed beggar the imagination, so I focused much of my visit on researching some of the latest developments in information systems, automation and connectivity technologies. (As if that weren’t enough.)

Reassuringly, an increasing number of technology suppliers put their main exhibit focus on stories of how their customers were realizing real returns on technology implementations. In terms of enabling technologies, some of the key technology trends and focus areas included security and networking; edge and cloud compute (and where to draw the line); and all aspects of non-human smarts: machine learning, deep learning and other shades of artificial intelligence.

Security & networking

If seeking to understand how IT networking technologies continue to be adapted to the needs of industrial, or operational technology (OT), environments, a visit to Cisco’s Hannover stand was a great place to start. In the industrial space, Cisco is aiming to “replace inefficiencies with information,” according to Bryan Tantzen, general manager of Cisco’s Connected Industry and Manufacturing business unit.

To accomplish this task, the company has set its sights on three essential problems: security, complexity and data management. On the security front, the company now offers a range of security technologies specifically set up for industrial networks, including its Identity Services Engine and StealthWatch security visibility and analytics. This is significant, because in the past these services stopped at the switch/router level but can now reach down to individual networked devices such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs) on industrial Ethernet networks.

Cisco is tackling complexity by bringing “network automation into the factory automation space,” Tantzen continued. Indeed, the company’s Industrial Network Director is specifically designed to help operations teams manage automation environments by providing full visibility and control of industrial Ethernet infrastructure in the context of automation processes.

Finally, in the realm of data management, Cisco’s Kinetic Data platform goes quite a ways beyond mere networking, with the ability to extract and normalize data from devices on distributed networks, apply rules to “data in motion” for fast decision-making and data reduction, and move data among multiple locations where apps reside—all the while enforcing policies around data ownership privacy and security. “We’re connecting, extracting and prepping data for edge compute integrations with the likes of Telit, Kepware and IBM Watson applications,” Tantzen said.

Another hot topic of discussion at Hannover—and one in which Cisco has an interest—is the proposed use of the OPC UA data model standard in conjunction with time-sensitive networking (TSN) extensions to standard Ethernet to effectively replace the variety of proprietary industrial network that have developed over the years to overcome the deterministic limitations of Ethernet. In a separate press conference at Hannover, Tom Burke, president and executive director of the OPC Foundation announced that a stable OPC/TSN draft standard had been completed, and that “prototyping is underway.”smart industry iot iiot industrial internet of things digital transformation

The success or failure of these sorts of standards efforts seldom hinges on technical merit, but often depends on political alliances among the supplier community. In yet another Hannover announcement, key player Rockwell Automation announced that it would join a group called “the Shapers” whose goal is to create a communication solution for real-time and sensor-to-cloud applications in industrial operations “based on the OPC UA protocol, which allows easy and secure sharing of information across different vendor technologies and the time-sensitive networking (TSN) suite of standards, which helps improve latency and robustness in converged industrial networks,” the company said in a statement.

“Connecting technologies across an industrial organization while maintaining multivendor interoperability requires a harmonized, interoperable solution that uses consistent information models, communication and application behavior (together known as application profiles),” said Paul Brooks, business development manager, Rockwell Automation.

Other industrial infrastructure companies already pledging support to the movement are ABB, Belden, Bosch Rexroth, B&R, Cisco, Hilscher, KUKA, National Instruments, Parker Hannifin, Phoenix Contact, Pilz, Schneider Electric, TTTech and WAGO.

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