Industrial Automation

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Networking the industry

While the term „Internet of Things“ first turned up in 1985 (when the Internet as we know it today was not even a prospect yet), the need for an „industrial“ subset has been recognized only in the early 2000s. Today, Industrial IoT is being implemented far more rapid than a more generic IoT, and – believe it or not – the key drivers for that came out of Europe.

When the term „Industry 4.0“ (Industrie 4.0) was coined back in 2011 at the Hannover Messe, the initiative was widely viewed as a buzzword creation project. Even more so, since Networking had become a key issue in industrial automation in the 1990s. Furthermore, a „high-tech strategy“ launched by the German government didn’t seem to be something that had to be taken seriously.

We will probably never know how much of its success was due to thorough planning and how much was sheer luck, but… well, it worked. Obviously, there was a need in Germany’s manufacturing industries for guidelines regarding this issue, and thanks to their global ecosystems of suppliers and subcontractors, the concepts spread to many parts of the world.

Similar activities in other key regions – e.g. „Industrie du futur“ in France, IVI in Japan, China’s 2015 5-year-plan or the IIC in the USA, most of them incorporated the Industry-4-0-approach – have turned the „Industrial Internet of Things“ (IIoT) from concept to reality in a short time. Not as a subset of a general IoT, as used to be predicted, but as the pioneering technology. In fact, IIoT is actually here while IoT is still more of an idea.

France’s Industrie du futur has been conceived in close cooperation between French and German industry associations, acccompanied by both governments and the European commission, and became a model for Italy’s strategy „Fabbrica Intelligente“, Spains „Industria Conectada 4.0“ and, more general, an EU-wide incentive for industrial digitization.

Actually, this approach is recognized worldwide as a locational advantage for the European Manufacturing Industries. The USA and China joined the effort of standardizing industrial digitization only in 2014/2015. The Industrial Internet Consortium IIC as well as China’s tech strategy in it’s five-year-plan are very closely related to the European specifications. Obviously, the organizations have learned from mistakes of the past and are trying to avoid proprietary solutions.

Connecting robots

From an technical point of view, the interesting parts of Industry 4.0 are not the „cyberphysical systems“ – industrial robots and PLCs have been around for decades. What matters is the connectivity.

The major changes in connections between automation equipment have actually happened in the late 1990s/early 2000s, when many more or less proprietary fieldbus solutions became obsolete. Ethernet connections expanded from the administrative areas into factory floors, which opened up the automation market. However, Fieldbusses were there for a reason – Ethernet couldn’t cope with real-time requirements, it just was not designed for predictability. Nevertheless, the trend toward simpler, more standardized connections turned out to be unstoppable, and so Ethernet and fieldbus features were combined. Specialized industrial protocols and topologies include Profinet, EtherNet/IP, SafetyNET, SERCOS and EtherCAT.

For the sake of interoperability, Ethernet standard connectors are in use everywhere today, even if they come in ruggedized housings and multiple formfactors.

With the propagation of wireless connectivity, industrial robots are becoming more mobile. Many of the protocols mentioned work also with Wireless LAN, even though other transmission protocols and standards like LoRa, ZigBee or Industrial Bluetooth profiles are gaining foothold. However, most players in the manufacturing industries are aware of the danger that comes with the introduction of new, „smaller“ communication standards. After all the trouble the industries went to when standardizing wired industrial communications, hardly anyone wants to risk a new fragmentation of the market on the wireless side.

Design principles of Industry 4.0

  • Interoperability: The ability of machines, devices, sensors, and people to connect and communicate with each other via the Internet of Things (IoT) or the Internet of People (IoP).
  • Information transparency: The ability of information systems to create a virtual copy of the physical world by enriching digital plant models with sensor data. This requires the aggregation of raw sensor data to higher-value context information.
  • Technical assistance: First, the ability of assistance systems to support humans by aggregating and visualizing information comprehensibly for making informed decisions and solving urgent problems on short notice. Second, the ability of cyber physical systems to physically support humans by conducting a range of tasks that are unpleasant, too exhausting, or unsafe for their human co-workers.
  • Decentralized decisions: The ability of cyber physical systems to make decisions on their own and to perform their tasks as autonomously as possible. Only in the case of exceptions, interferences, or conflicting goals, are tasks delegated to a higher level.

Industry 4.0

Marcel ConseeAs Technical Content Specialist, Marcel is the internal contact person for technical questions in Mouser’s EMEA marketing team. Originally a physicist, he used to work as editor for special-interest magazines in electronics. In real life, he’s juggling two kids with too many chromosomes, a  penchant for electronic gadgets and a fondness of books and beer. Until now, none has dropped.

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