Becoming the Factory of the Future: Part 1

Becoming the Factory of the Future Part I

Mike Godsey | September 29th, 2015

How to Prepare Now for the Industrial Internet of Things

Awareness of the Internet of Things (IOT) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) continues to grow.  As the concept of people and machines connected on a global scale gains traction, those of us in industry are now beginning to ask what the impact will be on our factories.  The following paper from Microscan Systems is the first in a series to examine how to become the factory of the future, and the roles that IOT and IIOT will play. Microscan is a valued supplier-partner with Cross Company's Automation Group.

The Internet is the prevailing medium of digital communication worldwide. However, the concept of using instant, pervasive, and globally connected data over the Internet for the benefit of industrial manufacturing is still in its theoretical stages, with few Internet-friendly industrial technologies actually available in the market to put the concept into practice. Despite this, it is speculated that in less than 10 years, the factories of today will learn to harness the power of the Internet not only to connect devices across the factory floor, but also to push and pull meaningful data via the World Wide Web. For factories of the present, the ability to compete in tomorrow’s economy hinges on their ability to integrate with this Industrial Internet of Things. This white paper offers a look into the factory of the future and presents fundamental steps that every manufacturer should take now to prepare for seamless integration when the Internet reaches the factory: 

  • Get Digital
  • Get Automated
  • Get Connected
  • Get Real-Time, Remote Access
  • Get Internet-Friendly Tools

The Factory of the Future

Over the next decade, the landscape of the factory will change dramatically. Factories of the future will be measured not so much by their ability to produce, but to produce with the most flexibility. The competitive advantages of real-time data acquisition and the ability to respond in timely and adaptive ways to market demands will drive businesses to adopt more pervasive web-based technologies. Imagine a scenario in which all devices on the factory floor (regardless of manufacturer) seamlessly and instantly communicate with one another about the quantity of material entering the line, as well as the quantity rejected from the line, and are able to alert the factory ERP (enterprise resource planning) system or MES (manufacturing execution system) about inventory on demand and initiate reorders when supply becomes low. Imagine further that “Big Data” is able to enter this factory from the outside world, providing systems with statistics about consumer buying habits and automatically increasing production at times of year when data trends indicate that demand for a product is at its highest. Tapped into a global data stream, the factory of the future can not only automate smart processes to meet its own internal objectives, but can anticipate opportunities and failures based on external events before they occur.

At the heart of this future factory is the interconnectivity of devices across one unifying medium, both within the factory and beyond. Many factories of today leverage specific industrial protocols (like EtherNet/IP™, PROFINET I/O®) that require most automation equipment to speak the same language, as well as specialized skill to program and install equipment on the line. What if the topology of the factory floor looked more like the Internet, built on open standards where devices – regardless of manufacturer or type – could speak to one another without limitations? The consumer world has already honed in on a single medium of communication; a global system that offers access to more information, faster, and from anywhere. This network is based on the most ubiquitous communication media of all: Internet protocols. The World Wide Web and devices that use it are expanding into every market thanks to simple, open standards, making the vast majority of collected data available on the Internet.

The Industrial Internet of Things

As factories of the past have leveraged advances in steam power, electricity, information technology, and automation to gain a competitive edge in their markets, the factories of the future will leverage the Internet to drive the world’s next industrial revolution – the Industrial Internet Revolution. Businesses looking to integrate more seamlessly with the global network via the World Wide Web will replace traditional industrial platforms like software and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) with technologies that break free of device-, operating system-, or protocol-dependency. Secure cloud computing will replace local networks, web services will replace software, and devices with Internet protocols will replace devices that use proprietary advantage to bind factories to the limited industrial protocols of the past. By implementing these changes toward an Internet infrastructure, businesses will be able – in a sense – to transcend the limitations of space and time. Information captured by devices on the factory floor will be accessible from any location in real time, opening the communication gateway both vertically (connecting machines across the factory and enabling instant availability of data to stakeholders within operational silos) and horizontally (one framework for the entire supply chain, across departments, business units, global factory locations, and even into other markets). 

The key to opening this gateway is Internet-accessible technology. Any device with an IP address can be located and accessed by web services that establish a common, open network for all devices across an Internet framework. This Internet of Things (IoT) is all-encompassing, defining a network that acquires data across every possible “thing” in the world – from personal fitness trackers, to weather monitoring, to smart homes, to factories. When discussing the factory in particular (where industrial devices such as sensors, switches, robots, automation machines, and mechatronics are the “things” that are connected), this subset of the Internet of Things is referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). The Industrial Internet of Things unites consumers and businesses on a single Internet medium, where Big Data collected by all of the elements in the network can be leveraged to make faster, more significant, and more automatic business decisions. 

To give an example, imagine the effects of exposing pharmaceutical manufacturing to Big Data from other sectors. The healthcare industry may collect data on the number of patients visiting medical facilities to address a common infection. With this data shared on the global Internet, connected companies in the pharmaceutical industry could leverage this metric to increase their investment in drugs that address the infection, or to increase production of drugs in certain areas where the infection is most common. The use of IoT for this purpose yields enormous benefits for both consumers and businesses alike – consumer health issues are addressed quickly and the most responsive manufacturers become the most profitable.

Common Misconceptions

Although there are many diverse interpretations of the Internet of Things, in its most elemental state, the IoT is essentially a network of devices that 1) have local intelligence (devices that are able to receive, process, and respond to data with other machines – also known as “smart” devices); 2) share a common service or application program interface (API) that allows them to communicate with each other in a useful way, even if they speak multiple protocols; and, 3) are able to push and pull status and command information from the networked world. In other words: network-friendly devices that are connected to the global Internet by some means.

The concept has been muddied in the discussion of the Industrial Internet of Things due to existing and predominant network technologies still at their peak in terms of demand and adoption. Hot topics like M2M (machine-to-machine) systems and industrial networks – while important elements in the progression of the factory of the present to the factory of the future – do not themselves embody the true concept of the Industrial Internet of Things. For instance, these elements alone do not provide a network of devices connected to the global Internet to share, analyze, and respond to the mass quantities of data produced in machine-to-machine transactions, which is key to unlocking the value of IIoT.

Connecting Devices Over Industrial Protocols

In the factory setting, industrial “machine-to-machine” (M2M) networks have widely been used to connect equipment across the floor to enable discrete automated processes. Since 19802, PLCs have used industrial protocols (like EtherNet/IP, PROFINET I/O, and others) to establish a line of communication from one machine to another by capturing and sending data from a central hub. Every device uses one or a set of proprietary protocols, so connecting one device to another means finding devices that speak the same language. For instance, in order to connect to an EtherNet/IP network, the device (like a barcode reader, robot, or PLC) must be able to communicate over the EtherNet/IP protocol. Code developed to support these systems, data collected by them, and the interfaces that access them are unique to each particular system and therefore are not easily usable in other systems. First, this is an obstacle to data sharing across the factory, since devices used for different purposes don’t always speak the same language. Second, these industrial devices do not speak the language of the Internet (HTTP being the predominant one, since it is the protocol for the World Wide Web). Data sharing over an industrial protocol like EtherNet/IP is largely limited to the local network and devices that use it, impeding access over the global Internet for a true implementation of IIoT.

The true spirit of the Industrial Internet of Things is to develop a collective intelligence about systems, equipment, and people by sharing data across many diverse media and industrial sectors. Creating an “intranet” of connected devices within a single factory is effective for establishing processes that may be smart enough to sustain themselves. However, the data they acquire has no way in or out of the factory to allow it to respond to fluctuations in other business locations, enterprises, or markets. A true implementation of the IIoT connects the factory with other factories, suppliers, or customers, enabling the factory not only to meet today’s goals but to predict tomorrow’s challenges.

Accessing an Industrial Device Using a Web Browser

Although web browsers are primarily used to access the World Wide Web, they can also be used to access information provided by web servers in local networks or files in file systems simply by locating an object with an IP address. Devices that can communicate with web browsers provide the most device-agnostic method of accessing data (since web browsers are universal to most common devices such as PCs, smart phones, tablets, and more). This means data can be accessed in real-time across a number of systems, even remotely, as long as the device’s IP address is accessible. The problem with this use of web browsers is that in the majority of cases the target device must be accessed on a discrete local network. However, once this device’s information is able to be pushed to the global Internet, the true IIoT can begin to take shape.

The common theme across these scenarios is a lack of availability of data beyond the factory walls. Factories using M2M systems are well-integrated vertically to support the facility’s lifecycle, but are blind to the overall customer or product lifecycle. This is largely where the factory is today.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where Getting Digital, Getting Automated, and Getting Connected are examined. Thanks for reading!

Becoming the Factory of the Future is a Microscan publication.

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Mike Godsey


Mike Godsey is the Applications Team Manager for Cross Company Motion Solutions. Mike has over 30 years of experience in process and machine control automation. He has experience as a field engineer as well as in project engineering and management. Mike has spent the past 15 years with Cross Company working to provide his customers with the best possible solutions.