Integrating Legacy Tech on the Internet of Things

Michael FahrionEvery industrial network is a work in progress.  When connectivity tools like Ethernet, USB and cellular data networking became available, we didn’t uproot our existing infrastructure and start all over again.  Instead, we developed devices like serial severs and media converters to give existing equipment new connectivity options and the ability to communicate with new applications.  An installed device might have been designed to communicate through a serial port, and it might have used Modbus as its native tongue, but that didn’t mean that its data couldn’t be translated and made portable across any mix of wired or wireless connections.

Industrial IoT (also referred to as industrial internet, industrial internet of things, and IIoT) technology will make upgrades like this even more commonplace than they already are, especially for devices that are installed in locations that make cabling impractical or impossible.  So, in some ways, the introduction of IoT tech is the latest step in a process that has been unfolding all along. When new data networking capabilities come along we layer them on top of our existing networks, continuing to improve and enhance them as we go.

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But IoT tech will do far more than just network-enable additional legacy equipment.  It will change the way we collect, transmit, interpret and use our data.

Smart IoT technology for machine condition monitoring

In traditional SCADA, data has typically been a point in time solution to a point in time problem.  Many devices reported only to a PLC or an HMI.  More advanced systems might carry data across an Ethernet network to a controlling application at the network core, but the data was still trapped within a silo and largely unavailable to other systems. 

Industrial IoT is an entirely different approach.  In the old model, devices reported a steady stream of data to a single end point.  IoT tech can provide the same devices with network connections, but it will also bring intelligence out to the network edge.  Rather than transmitting every bit of information that is created, IoT systems can differentiate between data that has no value, like a temperature parameter that has remained constant, and data that needs to be sent upstream.  IoT tech also makes data available wherever it may have value, often with publish/subscribe protocols – Twitter for machines, if you like.  Multiple applications can independently make use of any data that is available, simply by subscribing to the relevant data feeds.  That makes IoT tech incredibly scalable.  It also makes the data far more valuable, as the same data can be used by many more applications and for many different purposes.

Consider the network edge.  There are a lot of big, expensive things out there that can cause enormous losses if they fail without warning.  There are pumps, motors, drives, conveyers, lifts and other devices of every description.  Many of them have no communications ports of any kind.  Even if they do, they may not be programmed to tell you what you want to know, and fiddling with ancient programming creates the risk of introducing problems into a perfectly functional legacy system.  Yet you need data from these devices – you’ll never eliminate unplanned downtime or improve efficiencies if you can’t measure and monitor your processes. So what’s to be done?

Industrial IoT provides the answers.  For example, the industrial internet can let you connect low power, wireless network nodes to sensors on your motors out at the network edge.  The nodes will transmit that data upstream, where it can be made available to any application that finds it valuable.  A machine monitoring application could look at data like temperature, vibration, and current use, compare it to specified parameters and historical levels, make predictions about where and when a motor is about to fail, and produce alerts long before a problem became serious.   At this point you’ve already moved well beyond traditional SCADA. 

Until now, OT (operational technology) has been slow to adopt new data networking technology.  Things that have worked smoothly in the safe IT closet haven’t always worked quite so well out at the messy network edge.  But IT has come a long way, and in its incarnation as industrial IoT it’s not only reliable enough for harsh environments, it opens the door to exciting new OT capabilities.  Industrial IoT isn’t just advanced SCADA; it’s the convergence of IT and OT.

 


Mike Fahrion is the lead Internet of Things (IoT) strategist at B+B SmartWorx (formerly B&B Electronics) and the company’s vice president of IoT technologies, he also serves on the Advisory Board for Smart Industry.  Fahrion ensures that the B+B SmartWorx industrial IoT solutions not only take advantage of new innovations as they appear, but that they can also accommodate valuable data networking equipment that is already in place.  This lets B+B SmartWorx customers preserve the value of their legacy equipment when upgrading their networks with more advanced data networking technologies.

Fahrion is an expert in data communications with 20 years of design and application experience. His technical expertise combined with a talent for simplifying complex issues allow Fahrion to turn technical babble and marketing speak into practical, useful information for engineers and managers. Fahrion is a frequent speaker and author, including his politically-incorrect newsletter, eConnections, with over 50,000 monthly subscribers. Fahrion holds a BSEE from Iowa State University.