What’s Next in Factory Automation?

By Arthur Visser | August 19, 2013

What’s Next in Factory Automation?

The Internet has become an essential and integrated part of our daily lives in the developed world. Whether it is used as a source of information or for registration (subscriptions, events), declaration (income tax), purchasing, monitoring, or entertainment, Internet penetration continues and the people who already use the Internet use it more and more. We’ve reached the point where we risk suffering from information overload — and that in turn has inspired new services that help users filter information by making recommendations and fine-tuning the online experience based on the user’s history.

The Internet is also more mobile. Most of us want continuous access, no matter where we are: The Internet is just too important. This means that eventually the Internet will be everywhere, including the factory floor.

Kevin Ashton, co-founder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center at MIT, first mentioned the Internet of Things in a presentation he made to Procter & Gamble: “Today computers — and, therefore, the Internet — are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes (a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes) of data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings — by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture, or scanning a bar code,” he said. “The problem is, people have limited time, attention, and accuracy — all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things — using data they gathered without any help from us — we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss, and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing, or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.”

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a scenario in which every thing has a unique identifier with the ability to communicate over the Internet or a similar network. Once something has a unique identifier, it can be tagged, assigned a uniform resource identifier (URI), and monitored or manipulated over a network. Microprocessors will be embedded in everyday objects, and the factory floor will be no exception. On the factory floor, we can assign a URI to a machine, a sub-assembly, a physical resource, a tool, a conveyor belt, or any other random item that comes to mind, even a connector.

With the introduction of IPv6, the huge increase in address space is another factor in the development of the Internet of Things. With IPv6 there are enough addresses to easily assign an IP address to everything we want to monitor; this was not the case with IPv4.

Companies in a position to offer this embedded technology are investing heavily in the Internet of Things solutions, as can be seen by some recent announcements: Microchip chose ioBridge as its first embedded cloud design partner; Texas Instruments introduced new sub-1 GHz 6LoWPAN solutions, aimed at providing a gateway for remote, low-cost wireless sensors to connect to the Internet; and Silicon Labs’ EmberZNet PRO protocol stack provides a ZigBee-compliant software solution for IoT applications. 

Companies like General Electric have put the Internet of Things concept into action to increase productivity through cloud computing and data analytics. The Internet of Things consists of machines like electrical turbines or medical equipment outfitted with sensors that can send data to a centralized data analytics repository. New ways of processing big data can then be applied to gain new insights into manufacturing productivity or diagnostic success. All of this is well suited for storage and processing in the cloud.

Today, by adding RFIDs to everyday objects, existing projects have been making “things” Internet-enabled by adding intelligence and connectivity. Future projects focus on allowing devices, machines, and objects to interact with each other without the need for configuration by human beings and with the purpose of applying them in industrial and factory automation applications.

One such project, funded by the European Union, is the IoT@Work research project, which is coordinated by Siemens and ran from June 2010 to June 2013. This project focused on industry automation and its networking and communication needs.

The IoT@Work project focused mainly on the control and process control levels as depicted in the Automation Pyramid (above), but it is evident that the Internet of Things implementation requires embedded processors at field level as well. This will offer opportunities for connector manufacturers and may result in a trend in which connector manufacturers move away from standard electronic connectors to smart connectors with their own embedded processors. Process and industry automation have strong demands for reliable communication and security guarantees. It is imperative to maintain a high level of determinism, safety, and security of the production process itself and to avoid both safety-critical failures and costly production interruptions. Any IoT architecture has to incorporate these from the start.

Siemens, like other companies involved in the Internet of Things, references a revolution in manufacturing processes in which raw parts and production machines would enter into a dialogue in order to optimize manufacturing processes by themselves. This means we are talking about autonomously learning systems and machines without receiving specific human input but input from each other instead. The potential and technology exists for machines to communicate not just within, but also among, organizations. The cloud will also play a very important role in the data processing logistics, as the Internet of Things will produce unimaginable amounts of data. Humans will no longer be able to process and act on this data, so machines with embedded processors will have to do that. It is indeed mind-boggling — the sky’s the limit with the Internet of Things.

The IEEE Standards Association mentions approximately 50 to 100 billion things that could be electronically connected by the year 2020 and has a specific section on its website for standards related to the Internet of Things. Many of these have been around for some time, like the Ethernet standard IEEE 802.3-2012.

What will the word “connectivity” mean in the new fully networked world of factory automation we are entering? How will we define an ”electronic connector” if everything is connected and often wireless? Will it still be a passive piece of hardware, manually mated (requiring human action) and designed to fulfill a specific purpose for a specific application? Or will it (optionally) contain processing power and intelligence? Will it decide for itself when to “mate”? As wireless connectivity becomes more dominant, antennas, transponders, and receivers, as well as “classic” connectors, will continue to play an important role. But a whole new market may develop in which connectors become hybrid components, capable of both hardware interaction or mating and (subsequent) connectivity without further human intervention.

For more information on the Internet of Things, read articles published by Siemens by clicking here or here.

What are your thoughts?

What does the connector industry think of this development? Are you currently developing products with the Internet of Things in mind? What are the key characteristics of these products? Are they RFID-based, as in existing applications, or are they revolutionary and new? Share your thoughts with us and take part in this small online survey. Your entry is anonymous. After submitting your answers, you will be able to see how your peers replied.



Arthur Visser
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