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Market Insight

IIoT: The current state of industrial connectivity and new technologies

August 02, 2019


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Leveraging intelligent machines and advanced analytics, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can enable significant improvements in production and boost operational efficiency, proving truly transformational for industrialization.

The IIoT is a network of devices or objects that can exchange information with one another via a given protocol in a manufacturing setting. This results in systems that can monitor and collect data, providing valuable insights to drive smarter and faster business decisions.

Early applications of IIoT focused mostly on sustaining the health of a plant’s assets through condition monitoring and predictive maintenance. In the first, a machine’s condition is tracked through measurement of a parameter, such as vibration or temperature, to identify the current state of health, which can be used to indicate a developing fault. In the second, the state of in-service equipment is gauged to predict when maintenance must be performed, an approach that offers cost savings because repair or maintenance is performed only when needed.

Besides asset-health monitoring, however, IIoT has an impact across product life cycles, affecting their design, operation, and maintenance. For instance, the insights generated from an IIoT solution can help streamline and speed up the design process; slash power consumption and boost operational efficiency; optimize maintenance scheduling; and through proactive and predictive maintenance, reduce the risk of debilitating downtime caused by faulty equipment.

At the heart of all IIoT applications lies connectivity, which enables data from industrial equipment to be accessed to help visualize and optimize a plant’s performance. To this end, suitable networking solutions are crucial to properly collect and analyze the immense amount of data that will be generated in pursuit of creating new business value, IHS Markit believes.

Three leading technologies
Three major industrial network technologies are in place today: industrial Ethernet, Fieldbus, and wireless. As the medium through which multiple protocols transfer data, the three in 2018 accounted for approximately 85% of the global market for industrial communication networks, as shown in the chart below. The remainder of the market belonged to cloud-related technologies as well as open-source protocols like OPC UA.

Industrial Ethernet includes all protocols that use Ethernet IEEE 802 as their physical media. Examples of industrial Ethernet protocols include PROFINET, EtherNet/IP, Modbus TCP/IP, PowerLink, SERCOS III, and EtherCAT. As an Internet Protocol (IP)-based networking technology, Ethernet is well suited to supporting IIoT. It provides better bandwidth than Fieldbus, an important factor when large amounts of data that must be rapidly transmitted are involved. The increasing use of Ethernet protocols in conjunction with other technologies also supports vertical communication with industrial control systems, including Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES).

For its part, Fieldbus is any wired networking protocol that does not fit into Ethernet; examples include PROFIBUS, DeviceNet, Modbus, and Foundation Fieldbus. While Fieldbus-enabled devices still account for most of the current installed base, a transition to industrial Ethernet is taking place.

The third technology, wireless, transfers information between two or more points not connected by an electrical conductor. Wireless communication network technologies include consumer solutions like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, cellular technologies such as LTE, and industrial solutions exemplified by WirelessHART and ISA 100.11a.

Although common in consumer applications, wireless networking overall has not been widely adopted for connecting industrial devices, its use primarily limited to connecting rotating equipment or to plant extensions to meet new regulations and legislation for special applications. Concerns over the use of wireless technology in industrial settings include cybersecurity, resilience in a noisy manufacturing environment, wireless coverage, scalability, and high-power consumption.

The wireless technology being positioned for the future is 5G. With its support of high-speed mobility, compatibility with various standards, low power consumption, and ultra-low latency, 5G promises to transform real-time data delivery and time-sensitive industrial automation applications.

Cloud connectivity and the edge

Unlike Fieldbus and Ethernet that account for the bulk of the industrial connectivity market, cloud connectivity solutions are still nascent, making up just 0.01% of the market in 2018. From its small installed base, however, cloud technologies will be the fastest-growing connectivity medium on the market, forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 45% between 2017 and 2022.

Cloud computing facilitates the access of applications and data from any location worldwide, and cloud solutions are well positioned to handle the massive influx of information generated by the connected devices and machines in an industrial setting.

The new paradigm in industrial production combines using the Cloud with edge computing. Where latency is critical, analytics can be performed at the edges of the network, away from the Cloud and datacenters in a more energy- and cost-efficient approach that leads to improved response times and transfer rates. On the other hand, if significant processing power is needed or information must be collected across multiple facilities, the Cloud becomes crucial, capable of the continuous crunching of huge data sets uploaded by the myriad devices and gateways on the manufacturing floor.

The fundamental prize of this datacentric, analytics-intensive process is the information and insights that can be used to create a set of unique interactions, new business models, and innovative solutions—none of which would be possible without the deployment of IIoT. Ultimately, for many applications, a hybrid approach will be followed, maximizing the advantage of both the Cloud and local data processing.

Messaging protocols and a standard architecture
As cloud computing becomes more popular and widespread, two messaging protocols linked to cloud connectivity will come into increasing play.

MQTT, or Message Queuing Telemetry Transport, is a protocol that allows massive machine-to-machine networking so that devices, sensors, and systems can connect to one another. It is lightweight; intended for low-bandwidth, high-latency networks; and is most suitable for simple push-messaging scenarios, such as temperature updates, oil-pressure feeds, mobile notifications, and general use within embedded systems.

As IIoT solutions continue to be introduced into the industrial environment, increasing amounts of data are exchanged between machines and across all automation levels. Non-uniform interfaces can make the process complex and time consuming.

The growing use of IIoT solutions in industry has also given rise to an open-standard networking architecture to harmonize communication and data sharing among different devices, machines, and systems. OPC UA, or Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture, is often seen as a complementary technology within industrial automation because it allows equipment offered by different vendors that support dissimilar protocols to communicate and enable data transmission.

Of interest likewise to industrial automation is TSN, or time-sensitive networking, a set of IEEE 802 Ethernet sub-standards providing three essential capabilities: dependable real-time communication, high bandwidth to accommodate the vast amount of data flowing across networks, and backward compatibility with Ethernet devices.

The bottom line
While IIoT solutions can help companies create new business value and remain competitive, there remains a significant installed base of legacy equipment and networks, and the cost of transitioning to IIoT-enabling technologies can be prohibitive.

Meanwhile, vendors in various parts of the world espousing proprietary protocols may be reluctant to embrace new and interoperable protocols that have yet to gain traction among users. Unlike the consumer sector, the industrial connectivity market is highly fragmented and proprietary, creating challenges in equipment interoperability and data transfer.

To be sure, several new industrial connectivity technologies that promise to accelerate data transmission from multiple devices and to the Cloud are now on the market or are being lined up for release. These technologies, such as OPC UA, MQTT, TSN, and 5G, have the potential to transform how data is transmitted and utilized in industrial environments everywhere.  

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