In the world of packaging, data is the key to increasing efficiency and cutting expenses to create the most profitable product. Reacting quickly to machine shutdowns, supply chain issues and safety events gets our plants back to what they are supposed to be doing: making the product.
But getting the facility floor to communicate with the business side of manufacturing has been historically difficult. Before the digital age, paper and people was the solution. Now, computer technology has started to automate some of the information exchange. The modern era of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is starting to automate some of the analysis itself.
There has always been a divide between operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT). The reason is simply that the technologies grew out of different needs. OT grew from the need to monitor sensors and communicate data to and from machines. Data, or the lack thereof, plays a vital role in machine safety. Communication standards were formed to reduce the need for hardwired digital and analog signals between devices. Human interaction was limited to an HMI (human-machine interface) for machine control or a push-button station.
IT grew from a need to get information to and from people. Data transfer speed and reliability isn’t as important as the quality and usability of the information. OT and IT are now converging as new business models that require a tight integration between the two. On-demand ordering and batch-of-one customization are some examples.
The problem is that our plants are full of older, yet fully functional, machines that are not designed to communicate with the latest IT systems. The variety of these machines add to the problem. As assets are added over the years, different technologies make their way to the plant floor, resulting in a non-unified floor architecture. OEM machine vendors use different suppliers for their automation which, as time passes, means that there are proprietary communication protocols and proprietary hardware as well. Different machine functions mean that even modern data streams are in different formats as well. Packaging machines might use PackML, but other applications might require something else. So even if a machine is only a few years old, pulling data from such a variety of machines without a tool may prove difficult.
Also, IT systems do not always have the capability to speak machine languages or keep up with the data streams that are generated on the plant floor. Furthermore, some machinery and operations for a manufacturing process are too simple to warrant a processor capable of communicating at all. As technology progresses, OT and IT systems will continue to grow closer in their data exchange. But in the meantime, a bridge is needed to join the two—and this is where an IoT Gateway comes in.
In real-world applications, IoT Gateways are the connection to all types of operational data. While machine data and sensors are obvious data streams, there are others that can be collected to paint a more accurate picture of the entire manufacturing process. Ambient environmental data, such as temperature, humidity, lighting levels and noise volume, can be collected alongside machine data to correlate the effects on process performance. Vibration sensors can detect changes in mechanics long before the ill effects of load imbalances or lubrication needs demand attention. Operator biometrics and performance can be tracked to optimize the safety of the operator and provide a work environment tailored for that operator’s needs. Creating individual data streams to a central data system is expensive and time consuming. An IoT Gateway can act as an edge device collecting data, buffering it and even grooming it before transport to the upper-level analytics software.
It is in these upper-level IT systems that true value can be mined. It is here where the people-to-people and people-to-data tools can be deployed to maximize communication of relevant data to the right people in a form that is informative and efficient. And it’s the IoT Gateway that lifts the data from the plant floor into these systems that begin to process large quantities of data to predict machine wear, maintenance needs and environmental effects on production. Once the IoT Gateway has made this data “airborne” it can be used by multiple visualization and analytic products to provide value.
What to Look For
So what should we look for in an IoT Gateway? There are different features and qualities that will help with a successful IoT deployment. The IoT Gateway needs to speak many languages, both on the OT and IT sides. Collecting data will require speaking the language of different programmable logic controllers (PLCs), not only from different vendors but from different eras. Some PLCs and sensors use standard protocols like OPC, TCP/IP, Modbus, CAN or others, so supporting those is important too. On the IT side, there are popular systems like Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and Oracle IoT Suite.
Additionally, there are streaming protocols such as OPC, MQTT, REST and more. Network security features are important to protect machines from unauthorized access. Encryption, user management and authentication methods are needed for these. Another useful quality is openness. It may be difficult for any single product to meet all the needs of one application, so the ability to be configured and extended to meet specific needs is important. An open SDK for the gateway and use of open standards can help in this regard. Last, but just as important, is user-friendliness. The measure of whether or not an IoT project makes it off the drawing board is the return on investment. If the engineering costs to stand up an IoT solution are too high, the value of that project cannot be realized. The lower the engineering cost, the more projects come into the range of possibility. It is hard to find someone who is an expert on every data stream that needs to be connected. An IoT Gateway that is configured, rather than programmed, is important. Many cheaper IoT Gateways have the hardware to connect to different streams but no software to go with it.
An IoT Gateway helps you tap into the wealth of data that is constantly generated on your plant floor. It is the link to pulling old-industry machinery into the digital, Industry 4.0 age. With some planning and upfront effort in identifying the necessary and relevant data streams, an IoT Gateway can be a valuable tool to quickly and efficiently connect your OT equipment to your IT business systems, creating new business models and value streams.
A gateway with flexibility to address many different applications will save time in integration and engineering in the project integration cycle. If the application is for an end-user that is collecting large quanities of data from many types of machines, many options on the OT side are important. The IT side is simpler, since data is usually going to the same database or same type of database in one location. This means that your gateway needs to speak to many types of PLCs, controllers and IO. Some PLCs and sensors use standard protocols, but older machines may have older or no protocols, moving the data collection to traditional inputs/outputs.
For OEMs, the picture is different. In this case the machine stays the same, or relatively the same, but the end-users will have a variety of ways that they collect the data. Therefore, it is important to have flexibility on the IT side. Some of the more popular IOT systems are named above. There also are streaming protocols. For both end users and OEMs, network security features are important to protect machines from unauthorized access. Encryption, user management and authentication methods are needed for these. User configurability can open the connection possibilities as well, so the same IoT Gateway platform can be extended to unique applications. This allows you to continue to make use of existing features but extend them to the 5-10 percent of the project that doesn’t fit nicely in the application “box.”
And, finally, user-friendliness is an important but often-
forgotten measure. The measure of costs versus the return on investment determines whether or not an IoT project makes it off the drawing board. If the engineering costs of an IoT solution are too high, the value of that project cannot be
realized. The easier the solution is to implement, the lower the cost becomes and, thus, more projects are possible. It is hard to find someone who is an expert on every data stream that needs to be connected. Many cheaper IoT Gateways have the hardware to connect to different streams but no configuration tools to go with it. This drives up cost due to training and integration expert needs.
The right IoT Gateway can help modernize your plant floor while leaving existing assets in place. By finding a cost-efficient and effective data collections system to address most if not all of your needs, the engineering and intergration cost are greatly reduced — creating the possibility for new business models and value streams.
Bosch Rexroth (boschrexroth.com) is a world leading supplier of drive and control technologies. The company bundles global application experience in the market segments of mobile applications, machinery applications and engineering, and factory automation. Bosch Rexroth offers hydraulics, electric drives and controls, gear technology, and linear motion and assembly technology, including software and interfaces to the Internet of Things.