Evolving Technologies Strengthen the Industrial Internet of Things

Exponential Growth Enabled by Streaming Sensor Data, New Protocols

By Thierry Bieber, Industrial Business Development Manager, Molex and Mark Rettig, Automotive Global Marketing Manager, Molex

To survive and compete in a global economy, manufacturers must continually identify new ways of increasing efficiency while reducing defects and product variance. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) incorporates such concepts as machine learning and big data, using vast amounts of sensor data, machine-to-machine communication and automation technologies to identify and eliminate inefficiencies faster than ever before possible.

The IIoT will provide a major assist in improving manufacturing quality control and supply chain efficiency. Also, processes that require variable elements, such as temperature, pressure and viscosity, or industries that require precise component placement, such as automation, are benefiting from the growing number of deployed sensors and from the insights generated from the data they produce.

Major automotive manufacturers are leading the way in IIoT adoption—differentiating new models by striving to give prospective car buyers the ultimate in connected safety and convenience. Many new vehicles epitomize the advantages of a connected world. Drivers can seamlessly access turn-by-turn directions in real-time or stream cloud-based content and their favorite playlists. Integrated sensors and onboard diagnostic data can detect safety risks, impending equipment failure, and even alert drivers to vehicle recalls.

While self-driving vehicles are not yet ready for open roads, at least one U.S. manufacturer plans to release a 2017 model equipped with wireless car-to-car communications for broadcasting data (i.e., speed, steering wheel position, brake status). They know connectivity translates into sales in the highly competitive automotive industry.

The IIoT also enables communications between fleet vehicles and control centers, as well as vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Consider that transportation firms already use streaming sensor data from vehicles to identify potential breakdowns and perform preventive maintenance. Agricultural and mining companies use sensor networks to coordinate movement of manned and autonomous equipment in the field in order to improve fleet maintenance, safeguard workers in remote locales, and boost crop yield or mine productivity and profits.

In the oil and gas industry, where uptime is crucial, more and more sensors, networks and analytics are being used to predict equipment performance and initiate predictive maintenance to prevent costly downtime. Digital components have proliferated in intelligent oil fields. A typical offshore production platform has more than 40,000 data tags. According to analyst McKinsey, improving oil production efficiency by 10% can yield a bottom-line impact of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The IIoT is rapidly evolving from concept to reality, and driving growth in the development of power efficient technologies. Massive gains are being realized in ultra-low-power (ULP) wireless technology, which will enable ultra-efficient data communications in networked sensor arrays and other devices. ULP technology includes autonomous wireless sensor systems running on batteries or harvested energy. It can and is being used in a wide range of applications, such as machine monitoring, health monitoring, smart buildings and more. ULP technology decreases sensor system power consumption, which increases device functionality. There are several contenders for the title of ULP wireless protocol of choice, but what the leading technology will ultimately be remains to be seen.

IIoT-enabled wireless platforms are based on standard and custom RF coaxial connectors, cable assemblies, and antennas, such as those from Molex. Also, unique solutions are required for the IIoT, such as communication technologies that include Wi-Fi®, Bluetooth®, GPS UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System), and others.

New industrial protocols are being developed that allow sensors to get smarter and provide more sensing capabilities. These protocols, which include IO-Link, make it possible to share maintenance information and perform internal diagnostics with relatively low interconnection costs.

To accommodate the higher data volumes involved in IIoT applications, factory floor and other industrial infrastructures are in the process of transitioning from proprietary and serial Fieldbus networks into newer, more open, Ethernet-based networks such as EtherNet/IP* or PROFINET*. In particular, EtherNet/IP has become a key part of the IIoT. It enables manufacturers to exploit high-level IP protocols such as VoIP, SMTP, HTTP and FTP, providing a framework for growing connectivity. EtherNet/IP also supports key manufacturing automation applications.

Smart Buildings
ULP technology is being used in a wide range of applications, such as smart buildings

The IIoT has been made possible by the convergence of various enabling technologies. In addition to the ULP wireless platforms discussed above, a new generation of sensor chips – including temperature and pressure sensors – is driving IIoT growth. Also, Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) addressing makes possible communication between and among a vast number of devices on the Internet. IPv6 assigns a numerical tag that identifies the network interface of a computer or other network node that is included in an IPv6 computer network. A unique IP address identifies an individual network interface of a host, locating it on the network and enabling the routing of IP packets between hosts. Unlike the previous protocol, IPv4, which defined an IP address as a 32-bit value, IPv6 assigns addresses with 128 bits, creating a much larger address.

Of this mix of technologies, few, if any, are fully mature. Sensors, however, have been available for a number of years and have achieved a degree of maturity. The two types of sensors mentioned above, temperature and pressure sensors, are now incorporated in an enormous number of devices. Accelerometers have become an integral part of smartphones and other mobile devices, allowing the display to reposition automatically when the screen orientation changes. Also, magnetometers enable compass functions for mobile devices, and gyroscopes can stabilize movement in camera lenses, among other functions.

While standalone sensors are still popular, there is growing use of multi-functional or “fusion” units that incorporate multiple sensors, reducing costs and saving space in devices. These fusion centers will play a key role in both the overall Internet of Things (IoT) and the IIoT.

When there are sizeable gains to be had (as in the case with IIoT adoption), there will always be a corollary rise in R&D and technology advances. What we’ve seen in the consumer space with the IoT will pale in comparison with the advances we’re about to experience on the industrial side.

The IoT is enabling a wide array of new applications and efficiency improvements that will not only increase productivity, but also profits. Among cascading effects are ramped-up efforts to address legitimate concerns about data security, which will help dispel any skepticism from traditionalists about this dramatically new way of collecting and analyzing data. A beautiful convergence of industrial machines, equipment and the Internet is on the horizon.


*PROFINET, EtherNet/IP, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are trademarks or registered trademarks and are the property of their respective owners