Is your plant-floor network IIoT ready?

Jan. 14, 2016
Assess what you have, then develop and execute a phased remediation plan
"Edge gateways also can be used to collect and send plant-floor data directly to the cloud." Hilscher's Armin Pühringer on the ability of networking devices to provide an independent, parallel path to IIoT.

If you're intimidated at the prospect of connecting your facility to the wider Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Daniel Drolet and Armin Pühringer have a simple message: don't panic—much of what you need to start the journey is already in place.

At their Smart Industry 2015 session, "Is Your Plant Floor Network IIoT Ready? How to Assess and Remediate," Drolet and Pühringer combined to tell an IIoT story of two halves: how to move your network infrastructure from a proprietary serial to an open industrial Ethernet, and then how to connect to and leverage the power of the cloud to drive efficiencies across your facility. Overall, they provided an effective and practical roadmap on how to document and assess the capabilities of your current infrastructure, and then how to develop a plan to bring your control and information network forward to participate in the IIoT.

Drolet, executive VP and partner at PCN Technology, began the session by posing the question, "How do you justify and how do you move to IIoT?" Justifying the move may be the easier part: customers are now favoring standardization of plant networks over proprietary equipment and infrastructure, in order to integrate all data frameworks with the ultimate goals of improving uptime and operational equipment effectiveness (OEE) via more proactive work processes.

From a practical perspective, Drolet said, bridging the IT/OT divide and securing the resultant architecture will likely require some new network infrastructure as well as a combination of gateways, protocol converters, and firewalls where it makes sense to keep older networks in place. He and PCN currently are working on solutions for customers to "solve the immediate pain points related to how to begin the transition to industrial Ethernet."  


Overall, a phased migration strategy may be the best path to move to the IIoT, with a "gradual remove and replace" of legacy infrastructure during scheduled downtimes, Drolet said. Today this infrastructure may include cabling, bridge networks, gateways, converters to manage the migration to major IoT-enabled components (PLCs, HMIs, drives and sensors) and Ethernet-based interfaces (EtherNet/IP, Profinet, and Modbus TCP).

The heart of a phased migration strategy, Drolet said, involves "maintaining the existing serial technology but solving the pain point and starting to move to the world of industrial Ethernet by deploying new technologies and products in that world, then start turning off serial devices as you migrate."

Edge-to-cloud connections

Hilscher’s Armin Pühringer, business development manager, began his remarks by proposing a simple, four-point strategy for connecting an existing infrastructure to the IIoT:

Access field data: "Start with what you have in order to protect your assets. Use the existing infrastructure in the plant, and overlay IoT communication via new IoT-related communication standards like OPC-UA or MQTT. You collect all the information into a gateway device, and then you're able to transmit to higher levels" such as planning or execution systems.

Consult reference architectures: "Extract the best ideas, and apply them to your situations in your plants."

Virtualize plant equipment: Develop a "digital twin" that can be studied and tested to better understand the likely behavior of the real-life asset.

Leverage standards: "Without standards, you cannot communicate."

Edge gateways also can be used to collect and send plant-floor data directly to the cloud, Pühringer noted. "It doesn't matter if you use a chip, a module, or a PC card as the communication interface," he said. This is accomplished through a combination of fieldbus connectivity, wireless technology, and cloud applications that, in limited functionality, run on the edge device.