Systems integration for industry 4.0

November 22, 2016 // By Nick Boughton
Our world is getting smaller every day. Never before have remote locations been more accessible thanks to communications technology, smartphones and the internet. Connected devices have infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including the most traditional industry sectors.

One question industry has been unsuccessful in answering refers to the number of connected devices that exist in the world at the moment. Gartner says that by 2020, the Internet of Things will have grown to more than 26 billion units. According to Cisco, there will be 10 billion mobile-ready devices by 2018, including machine to machine – thus exceeding the world population.

Only fifteen years ago, an industrial plant operated on three separate levels. You had the plant processes or operational technology (OT), the IT layer and in between stood the grey area of middleware - connecting management systems to the shop floor. The problem in most enterprises was that the commercial and production systems were entirely separate, often as a deliberate policy. Trying to connect them was difficult not only because of the divergence in the technology, but also the limited collaboration between different parts of the organisation. For these reasons successful implementation of middleware was rare.

Fast forward to today’s smart factory floor that uses the almost ubiquitous Ethernet to make communications as smooth as possible. Supporting the new generation of networking technologies is an increased flow of data, collected and analysed in real-time. However, data is only useful when you can decipher and display it. The next step to industry nirvana is using relevant data for better decisions and predictive analysis, in which the system itself can detect issues and recommend solutions.

Smart manufacturing is based on a common, secure network infrastructure that allows a dialogue – or even better, convergence - between operational and information technology.

The trend goes beyond the factory floor and expands to big processes like national utilities, water treatment and distribution, energy and smart grids, everything in an effort to drive better decision making, improve asset utilisation and increase process performance and productivity.

In fact, some water and energy companies are using the same approach to perform self-analysis on energy efficiency, potential weak points and the integration of legacy systems with new technologies. In a highly regulated and driven sector like utilities, maximising assets and being able to make predictions are worth a king’s ransom.