Consortium aims to speed IIoT developments

Jan. 11, 2016
Critical mass of industry participants lends credence to testbed efforts
“No one asked: ‘I wonder what we can do with the Internet to connect this with the other information resources in the plant?’” The Industrial Internet Consortium’s Richard Soley blames industry’s underutilization of internet technology on a lack of “internet thinking.”

“The Internet changes everything,” Microsoft’s Bill Gates famously stated back in 1999. But there are some parts of industry relatively untouched by the Internet, at least according to Richard Soley, executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC).

During his keynote address at Smart Industry 2015 in Chicago, Soley pointed out that the ladder diagrams for the programmable controllers used in discrete manufacturing in 1980 are much the same as the ones used today. “35 years later we still program these things with ladder,” he said, “and worse, although it’s got an Internet port on it now, it doesn’t connect to the IT infrastructure of the plant.” Why not?

Soley attributes this missed opportunity to a lack of Internet thinking. “When this device was designed, and then redesigned and redesigned over the past 35 years, no one ever said, ‘I wonder what we can do with the Internet to connect this with the other information resources in the plant?’”

This oversight will soon be rectified if Soley and the member companies of the Industrial Internet Consortium have anything to say about it. The IIC, launched in March 2014 by AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM and Intel now numbers more than 200 member companies and intends to speed the adoption of that “Internet thinking” in discrete manufacturing as well as other verticals across the industrial landscape.

The IIC’s stated mission is, “To accelerate growth of the Industrial Internet by coordinating ecosystem initiatives to connect and integrate objects with people, processes and data using common architectures, interoperability and open standards that lead to transformational business outcomes.”

To do this, the organization has set up a sandbox, where companies come together to work out hypotheses that enable identification and development of necessary standards to support the evolvement of industry. This sandbox has taken the form of organized testbeds where, according to the IIC, “new technologies, new applications, new products, new services, new processes—can be initiated, thought through, and rigorously tested to ascertain their usefulness and viability before coming to market.”

There are currently eight IIC testbeds either in progress or already completed, such as the Condition Monitoring & Predictive Maintenance Testbed, conducted by IBM and National Instruments, and the Communication & Control Testbed for Microgrid Applications run by Real-Time Innovations, National Instruments and Cisco. From the results of these testbeds, the IIC and its member companies are learning what is needed to move the Industrial Internet forward in a way that will enable solutions to thorny issues such as interoperability and security.

The organization also recently issued its first draft of its Industrial Internet Reference Architecture (IIRA), which is intended to provide a common language to enable faster Industrial IoT deployment and a blueprint for standards development to come (see sidebar, below).

Reference Architecture lays groundwork for IIoT

"The goal and the challenge of the Industrial Internet Reference Architecture [IIRA] is to span the Industrial Internet of Things,” said Stan Schneider, CEO of Real-Time Innovation (RTI) and member of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) Steering Committee in his Smart Industry 2015 keynote address. “These systems might not all talk to each other today," Schneider said, but the common architecture to come will "connect sensor to cloud, interoperate between vendors, and span industries."

Schneider provided a high-level overview of the 102-page IIRA document, aiming for breadth over depth. For example, the opening "viewpoints" section of the IIRA, said Schneider, address "how different parts of organizations look at the architecture: who is going to use it, what it's going to do, how we're going to build it – which are quite different things. It also talks about resilience, which is the ability to respond and keep running in the face of adverse conditions," as well as data collection, security, representation, and analysis.

Schneider called out three IIRA topic areas for special attention: connectivity, which is how to communicate information between different parts of the organization; data management, which is about how that information is represented; and control and dynamic composition, which describes the ability to build and modify systems that are in the field over an extended period of time. In fact, Schneider claimed that the long-term value of a reference architecture lies precisely in "the ability to implement continual process improvements thanks to common data platforms."

This work being done by the IIC, said Schneider, has the potential improve on the traditional time required to move from use case to product by a factor of 10, from approximately 20 years to about two, by engaging in all aspects of the development process simultaneously, from identifying the use cases and defining the standards to building test beds and finally releasing industry-ready products.

For example, the first release of the IIRA took place while the IIC was simultaneously proving out seven test beds, with 10 more in the approval process. Demonstrations have already taken place in New York and Barcelona of products that are partly in compliance with IIC standards.

How is it possible to execute this kind of plan? "The level of expertise in the IIC is immense," said Schneider. "There are many, many companies [working on this effort], lots of architects, lots of real experience with systems that work and don't work. That power has allowed this architecture plan to come together."

The next iteration if the IIRA is expected within 12-18 months. The 102-page document can be downloaded at the Industrial Internet Consortium web site.          -- by Tom Wilk