The Internet of Things is becoming more widely understood, at least in terms of the vision. Connecting ‘smart’ objects together, so that they can work together to solve goals requires ever-decreasing units of computation to process the data that is exchanged. From the public awareness perspective, smart objects might range from Wifi-controlled lightbulbs (which are readily available) through to autonomous vehicles (which are not ready quite yet).
The scenario of a smart household refrigerator ‘talking’ to the household appliances seems to be rather contrived attempt to explain what is possible with IoT technology. Voice control technology such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are steadily becoming more integrated into people’s daily lives as the technology enables voice commands to integrate with a range of other systems.
Not everyone realises that their spoken word is being transported to a remote clod service, for processing, before actions are communicated to other systems and devices that deliver a (sometimes physical) response. Telling ‘Alexa’ to turn the lights on is an innocent activity that most people can get used to very quickly.
So, what is the Industrial Internet of Things? Surely there is more to it than voice control of the factory lighting?
Voice control is an interesting aspect of any system as it heralds a new way of humans to interact with systems. Perhaps what is interesting about industrial systems is that there is more of an emphasis upon the control of physical systems; using interfaces to actuate and control physical objects such as machinery for instance. You could argue that this applies to autonomous vehicles, the ultimate Cyber Physical System (CPS), and indeed it does, but Industrial IoT still remains more focused upon physical sensing and actuation, particularly when we think about the manufacturing industry.
There are also interoperability challenges that are specific to industrial systems which IIoT needs to be able to accommodate.
Unlike domestic IoT, standards for the interoperation of industrial systems have existed for some time, and though some of those standards may be proprietary, they need to be harnessed if the loftier goals of digital manufacturing/Industry 4.0 can be achieved.
Industrial systems are generally classified into two types;
– Operational Technology (OT), where robust devices such as Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are deployed to ensure safety, accuracy, real-time capability and generally the satisfactory control of manufacturing operations;
– Information Technology (IT) infrastructure that caters for ‘enterprise’ information systems requirements such as data storage, organisation, transaction processing, business reporting and visualisation, and data security.
It is typical for many industries, for there to be no direct link between OT and IT systems other than the human operators and supervisors that interface directly with the systems themselves. This ‘gap’ is the area of opportunity that Industry 4.0 is attempting to fill as it drives the adoption of bridging technologies that can enable automation, reasoning and subsequently large-scale delegation of tasks to the machines themselves.
As we start to contemplate the coupling of OT and IT, established concepts in either field take on new meaning. For instance, ‘safety’ has a more serious connotation when the system is controlling a machine tool. The ‘safety’ of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system is perhaps more focused upon data leakage rather than a direct threat to the physical wellbeing of a human operator. When designing an embedded control system, a formal approach to the software design is an established practice. However, enterprise software systems have grown to such scales that formal methods are no longer used to develop such applications. This is a clear example of the potential tensions that need to be worked out for successful IIoT adoption.
So, while IIoT has a lot of commonalities with the IoT, there are more domain specific challenges to consider. At present, these challenges are focused upon interoperability; not only from a technical perspective of “how to make ‘X’ talk to ‘Y’”, but also ensuring that the needs of each system are preserved without any adverse effect. Security means different things for OT and IT, and their coupling must protect system users accordingly.