Building a case for the IIoT in a technology-saturated world

26 February 2019 | 4540 Shares

Newly-qualified IT (Information Technology) professionals entering the industry often come with the preconception that technology lifecycles are short and that IT platforms tend to be iterative, prone to being superseded, and often replaced.

In part, this impression is attributable to the upgrade cycle that’s become the norm during the pre-cloud era, where in-house applications would be subject to being upgraded regularly, often for additions of dubiously-useful features, plus the standard patches and bug fixes.

In today’s cloud-centric IT landscape, upgrades still figure highly, although, in the anything-as-a-service model, they may go largely unnoticed – at least that would be the ideal. A key selling point for the cloud is that upgrades and patches are “taken care of,” although, truth be told, the story does not run quite so smoothly.

The reality for IT professionals in the industrial sector is different from this preconception. The lifecycles of plant, machinery, and industrial technology are much longer scale. Investments in physical systems (and supporting software) tend to be figured in the years, if not decades, rather than months.

It may surprise younger IT graduates to learn that the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has been a reality for many years in this sector, with control mechanisms, monitoring systems, sensors and other technology built into many devices in industrial settings, across logistics and up and down the supply chain.

To distinguish the IIoT comprising these devices and systems, it’s become standard to class IIoT as a part of the broader operational technology (OT), defined by Gartner as “hardware and software that detects or causes a change through the direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices.”

Like IT, about which new graduates have spent years learning, OT does get updated. Although, the greater dollar-value of much industrial plant and machinery means that such upgrades tend to be less numerous. But that’s not to say the sector is standing still. There remain, however, several underlying frameworks and protocols that are resistant to change, mostly because they’ve always performed according to task, and if it isn’t broken, as they say, don’t fix it!

In OT, communications protocols like Profibus, DNP3, and Modbus may use similar infrastructure as the IoT, and latterly, IIoT (ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and LoRa), but at some point, some of the security and larger-reaching management concerns that are foremost in the minds of IT professionals have become issues in OT, too. That’s especially the case once OT and IT start to co-exist on the same networks without any proper formalized management or oversight.

There are, however, massive advantages to businesses of just about any size in using existing embedded systems from an industrial plant and the newer IoT together. By homogenizing the entirety and applying the best of what IT is capable of today, businesses can draw out significant insights on how facilities are run, and put in place improvements to working practices and systems. Imagine connecting monitors and control devices on a single device to a cloud-based artificial intelligence system, to work out better fine-tuning policies or to better predict a failure.

Extending that paradigm outwards, today’s business software can help examine a totality of data that includes staff rotas, maintenance plans, warranty data, and business cycles, to determine the times and locations of the optimum plant downtimes for maintenance cycles.

To get a more encompassing overview of an organization’s hardware and software across OT and IT, operations directors will need to deploy a unifying technology overlay that allows control, monitoring and oversight across the full range of plant, machinery, monitors, sensors and the whole IT infrastructure, too. Edge deployments can be homogenized into the overall picture alongside apps on cloud platforms, head-office systems, on-premise data centers and the total of OT data flows.

Management and oversight are precisely what forward-thinking businesses need to “go digital,” but taking the first step is sometimes a cause for hesitation, as there have been, until now, significant practical difficulties in implementing such systems: incompatible protocols, proprietary technology, legacy hardware, software stacks, security issues as OT shares IT infrastructure, and many more.

Thankfully, there’s a supplier with industry running through its veins that is also a highly accomplished player in IT, and especially deployment and management of integrated IoT, IIoT, and OT systems. Industrial giant Siemens will be a familiar name to many in industry (its reach is far and deep in many verticals), but it’s in the MindSphere platform that many in industry find the ideal way to integrate disparate systems in a meaningful and advantageous manner.

MindSphere allows organizations with multiple installations, irrespective of location, to unify their “traditional” operations technology stack, with a framework that also seamlessly includes the IIoT. By providing a full picture of the enterprise’s technology and capabilities, Siemens offers companies insight into the minutiae of what were discrete, uncommunicative systems that operated in isolation.

MindSphere is available as a fully-managed cloud platform (platform as a service – PaaS) or can be installed on public or private systems, according to your specific IT and OT requirements. The use cases are only limited by the imagination, but results quoted by many of Siemens’ clients across the world include some or all the following improvements:

  • Advanced analytics of the IIoT, IoT and OT data from multiple installations, anywhere in the world, but drawn together into one place – even one dashboard, if necessary.
  • Edge-to-cloud connectivity and integration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure public cloud services, to name but two. The MindSphere platform creates a source of data that can be treated and streamed into any application, database, or service.
  • Create powerful applications in-house or deploy industry-standard apps across all infrastructure. The MindSphere APIs let existing systems or new code address any aspect of any connected facility. This massively extends ROI on existing systems, and prolongs the usefulness of OT and IT alike, lengthening lifecycles beyond expectations.
  • Access to a partner ecosystem to develop applications and add utility from third parties. The MindSphere network of Siemens partners gives companies access to a vast range of extended facilities and possibilities.
  • Connecting production facilities to supply chain partners, logistics, and fulfillment centers creates more meaningful communications and buy-in right across the work lifecycle.
  • MindSphere is malleable, and can be deployed in-house, or in the cloud, or as a fully managed PaaS.
  • Create digital twins of any technology or plant installation, or of entire systems, for fantastic insight. Modeled systems can use input from physical devices to allow real-time fine-tuning of models, plus an infinite range of “what-if” scenarios to help plan future strategy.

The first step to a fully-digitalized future is best taken with a supplier that understands the industry, with significant experience and history. Siemens is a company that offers a wealth of historical involvement at a core level in many verticals from oil and gas, utilities, and heavy industry to cutting-edge cloud technology. To take the MindSphere journey, get in touch with a representative today.