- By Daymon Thompson
- March 01, 2022
- Beckhoff Automation
Long before Industry 4.0 and cloud-connected architectures became possible, innovators championed PC-based technologies for industrial automation.
As Industry 4.0 and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) concepts become real applications, they have generated many exciting conversations. One has centered around the integration of Information Technology (IT) with operations technology (OT). Large IT companies have actively promoted ideas like workload consolidation for businesses to optimize all kinds of processes and be more competitive in their respective industries. This excitement, boosted by some of the largest players in automation technology (AT) who are jumping on board, is well deserved. Greater system openness, real-time deterministic control with many-core processors, the incorporation of web technologies and machine learning, among other advances, are all possible through applying popular technologies to industrial applications.
The convergence of IT and OT offers incredible benefits to machine control architectures today—just like it has for more than 30 years. While many suppliers are just now beginning to integrate PC-based technology into industrial automation, it is nothing new. The history of IT-OT convergence in the context of automation technology dates back to the early 1980s with the advent of the modern PC and those who saw its potential for industrial use. Of course, the adaption of these ideas follows the diffusion of innovations theory, which describes how new ideas and technologies are adopted in order by the innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5), early majority (34%), late majority (34%) and finally the laggards (16%). While it’s difficult to put exact dates on when various players bought in, it’s not difficult to show the larger picture of how IT-OT convergence has evolved over previous decades.
PC-focused innovation in the 1980s
During this era, the larger technology world really began to develop the personal computer (PC) and related technologies for more widespread business and consumer use far beyond the levels seen in the 1970s. These efforts led to transformations in standardized chip sets, board designs and eventually sophisticated operating systems. At that time, most industrial technology companies stayed far away from the PC path. The large, predominately PLC platforms were using proprietary chip sets, board designs and, in most cases, programming software. Traditional PLC technology for industrial machine control evolved much slower than it should have due to an industry-wide aversion to change. As a result, the paths of hardware PLCs and consumer and business-facing PCs would not begin to converge for decades.
While the majority of industrial vendors and manufacturers shunned IT technology on the plant floor at first, smaller start-up companies recognized that both technologies could coexist. These innovators foresaw how that intermingling could capitalize on the technological advantages of both sides and provide a high performance, universal platform for manufacturers and machine builders. Using proven industrial standards and emerging computer science innovations, smaller AT companies began the convergence of IT and OT in manufacturing.
Early adopters of the 1990s
In the 1990s, both technologies continued to advance, with IT pioneers running laps around traditional OT. The popularity of Windows exploded, and it became ubiquitous in nearly every area of technology. By launching Visual Studio in 1997, Microsoft combined a number of programming languages in a single, convenient environment, which continues to evolve and remain important to this day. Industrial vendors that began implementing PC-based automation technologies in the previous decade saw significant gains in both hardware and software performance that far outpaced traditional PLCs. The successful companies created new tools for deterministic, real-time control that could run on industrial PC controllers with standardized operating systems.
More automation vendors saw an opportunity, so they researched and launched computer-based controls. However, these early adopters realized that developing their own software from scratch and maintaining it was quite costly. They started using some off-the-shelf real-time operating systems, but often didn’t widely promote the solutions. Sometimes this happened because the vendor didn’t really believe in the technology, and other times it was because the technology wasn’t reliable. Some notable crash-and-burns gave all PC-based platforms a bad reputation during this time. Really, though, many platforms were providing incredible results in the field and extending the lead in performance over traditional PLC technologies.
The early majority from 2000 onward
The turn of the millennium brought further developments in software and multi-core processors. Major players on the consumer side, like Intel®, IBM and Microsoft, actively expanded into the OT realm. Likewise, a determined subset of the automation space kept integrating IT with increased real-time capabilities. This was happening when widespread IoT was still just an idea. Along with the automation and control advances, a major development was with networking.
The introduction of industrial Ethernet protocols, such as EtherCAT, created major performance improvements and a path forward from legacy fieldbuses. Industrial Ethernet is another example of IT and AT convergence, with Ethernet merging with fieldbus technology. Others were simply trying to port legacy fieldbus technology to run on Ethernet and, in the end, were not as successful. For example, TCP/IP technologies, created to drive non-deterministic, massive-scale networks, required extensive ancillary components and complicated configurations to create a high-speed, deterministic fieldbus. However, EtherCAT eliminated the complexity and cost of switches and additional hardware while providing deterministic control with up to 65,535 devices per network. This resulted from the same PC-based control innovators carefully considering what industrial Ethernet could offer by combining the openness and acceptance of Ethernet with the functionality expected of an industrial fieldbus. This was a rather different approach than creating workarounds, such as expensive managed switches, to drag old fieldbus protocols along as long as possible without regard to bandwidth utilization, Ethernet frame efficiency or the number of IP addresses on a plant floor.
Today’s late majority in IT-OT convergence
From automation software apps on smartphones to many-core CPUs with Intel® Xeon® processors in industrial enclosures, the IT-OT convergence continues to accelerate in the age of IIoT and Industry 4.0. For another example, contemporary HMIs commonly rely on web technologies, and standards such as MQTT and JSON are being rapidly implemented in IIoT contexts. Gigabit Ethernet technologies such as EtherCAT G are also becoming key as machines become more complex, and Time-Sensitive Networking is being developed to provide deterministic vertical communication to address the limitations of non-EtherCAT fieldbuses. In addition, industry is beginning in earnest to apply machine learning (ML) and other artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, which already drives consumers’ online shopping experience, directions on their phones and their “app life” in general. The rapid advances in consumer technology provide opportunities to deploy new industrial technologies faster, but also introduces greater risks of falling behind when some controls vendors are slower to adapt. Not actively seeking out technologies that help drive IT-OT convergence will lead to strategic disadvantages for tomorrow’s laggards.
Fortunately, the previous reluctance of manufacturers and machine builders to implement PC-based technologies continues to evaporate as they see the benefits of applying IT technologies where it makes sense. In any field of technology, this is always a moving target, but companies that have been driving this convergence for decades understand the stakes. Automation vendors and machine builders can’t simply decide to throw untested IT technologies on a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment and hope for the best. For companies that have looked to this convergence as a fundamental design philosophy for years, it is clear that any IT principle carried over to OT products must be deterministic, extremely reliable, available for many years and implemented in the most efficient possible method. Done correctly, IT-OT integration produces results far above what traditional platforms are able to accomplish alone.
It’s important to remember this IT-OT integration didn’t start with IIoT—and it won’t end there. As cloud-connected architectures and Industry 4.0 concepts become commonplace in factories around the world, it’s important to be aware of what is just on the cusp and the technology leaders that have a track record of driving innovation in the industry.
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