Customers are asking for solutions, not IoT | Automation.com

Customers are asking for solutions, not IoT

Customers are asking for solutions, not IoT

By Thomas Nuth, Global Manager of Vertical Businesses, Moxa

The Industrial Internet, or Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), has been a term that has been over-used and under-represented within the automation and networking industry. It is a common example of an industry marketing to itself, rather than the customer. Personally, I have never heard a customer asking for an Industrial IoT solution, yet we continue our attempt to sell them one.

It is important to understand that the IIoT is a movement, not a solution. By 2020, it is estimated that anywhere from 35-40 billion assets will be connected to the Internet. This progression toward a more connected world is occurring because the concept of pervasive sensing is slowly becoming reality. Sensors in our cars, city transit systems and jet engines grow more intelligent and capable each year. This reality is certainly true in process automation and industrial DCSes as well. In a very real sense, the increase of sensor technology in our factories, refineries and power systems is the foundation of what IIoT is. There are many ways in which IIoT represents itself in reality today that are worth highlighting as the exemplification of what IIoT is meant to represent.

Modernizing Legacy DCS

DCS's power the world’s refineries and chemical processing plants with extensive networks of controllers, analogue sensors and Fieldbus. These infrastructures rely on extensive local engineering support and are extremely expensive to commission and procure. For this reason, and partly due to a growing talent gap that exists between industrial automation and the IT realm, the world’s DCS vendor market has been slower to adopt modern networking, data management and control technologies than other industries. Still, with the growing competition of a global market, falling oil prices and rising capital equipment expenditures, oil and gas producers and holding companies are looking for ways to cut costs and increase productivity wherever possible. It is clear that gateway and networking technology offers the greatest ROI when it comes to modernizing and automating legacy DCS.                                                                                         

To most customers, the lofty prospect of increasing the operational lifeline of capital equipment, while simultaneously decreasing the potential chance of operational failure, sounds appealing in theory. However, achieving this goal has often translated into a complete replacement of existing field device network and DCS infrastructure. Such a change requires a complete operational shutdown and huge upfront capital expenditure. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Selective implementation of networking and computing technology allows for DCSes to be modernized incrementally at limited cost and zero shutdown time. Coupled with the advancement of smart sensor technology and cloud SCADA systems, the power of industrial networking devices to connect the field with the SCADA has only been magnified. Real-time analytics, supported by pervasive serial to Ethernet solutions, can extend operational lifelines of expensive capital equipment increasing data availability from the sensor network. Additionally, alarm system support at every mission-critical aspect of production can be easily transferred from localized areas to the LAN; increasing network availability and safety.

The increased use and reliance on smart sensor technology depends on reliable and scalable modes of data transmission. To support the growing data flow-rates between the numerous PLCs, server stations and LAN, Ethernet and industrial wireless offers the most reliable and scalable solution for most legacy DCS operations.  Gateway technologies support the conversion of common field-level protocols for improved network visibility. Opposed to complete DCS replacement, customers are able to support the required step toward improved network control and scalability by relying on intelligent serial converters, edge computing devices and industrial routers to bring the data from field devices into the view and control of modern SCADA offerings.   Functions like production discrepancy report generation, future network integration planning and general control of standard assets raging from boiler and flow control are now largely automated. Converting analogue systems to become digitally enabled and accessible via remote access control is the definition of what the IIoT, in DCS modernization and SCADA enablement, means.  

From SCADA to RTU

SCADA is used as the central data and control system relying on remote terminal units (RTUs) and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) for control execution. SCADA is typically deployed in DCS environments, making it incredibly difficult to run analytics on production rates and equipment status. On top of all that, making changes to the SCADA is time-intensive, technically difficult and very expensive. The concept of “Cloud-SCADA” is being developed by the world’s largest OEMs and DCS vendors to tackle this problem. However, while placing SCADA customization in the cloud saves time and money at the control level, field-device communication protocol needs to be readable and available throughout the entire network if real-time analytics is going to extend to the edge of the DCS. What good is a powerful control suite in the cloud if the tools are not actually connected to all (or most) of the assets in your production model? This is why advancements in industrial networking and gateway technology are so critical. They serve as the information highway between control and the actual production payload.

For example, ModBus is a very popular standardized communication protocol that is predominately used across existing PLCs and RTUs. Regretfully, the ModBus protocol provides no indexed registered values and offers a limited ability to track only 250 devices. In short, Modbus needs to be reliably converted to Ethernet for every work-group of devices under the controller managing them in your plant DCS. This is why intelligent gateway technology is a game-changer when it comes to enabling legacy DCS to become a part of the Industrial Internet of Things. Intelligent media conversion brings Modbus devices into the networking realm; allowing advancements in Ethernet, edge computing and cloud-SCADA platforms to optimize the production and refinement of oil, chemicals, or whatever the legacy DCS is charged with managing. Advanced analytics and control can now touch every edge of an industrial operation, offering huge savings in labor and preventative maintenance.   

Old Technology is Expensive Technology

In the end, it’s all about the bottom line. IIoT means nothing to our customer if it can’t save them, or make them money. As assets become more intelligent in the field, and SCADA enters the cloud, the power of gateway and networking technology will be the defining factor between efficiency and profit or system failure and insolvency. 

About the Author

Thomas Nuth is Moxa’s Global Manager of Vertical Businesses, based from California. Thomas provides strategic technology leadership and oversight for Moxa in Energy, Intelligent Transportation Systems and Smart Grid technologies. Thomas Chairs the Energy Working Group for the Industrial Internet Consortium, whose purpose is to generate test-beds and working business cases supporting the generation and cooperation of IoT technologies across the globe. Thomas has worked with the world’s leading companies in petroleum energy, rail transportation and technology to implement connected systems.  

MORE ARTICLES

VIEW ALL

RELATED