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Emerging technologies altering industrial automation landscape

By Max Burkhalter
October 5, 2016

You've heard the refrain before: The data and digital tools within Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things are contributing to a major change in how industrial organizations operate. While the potential impact of Industry 4.0 is well established, the nuances of the technologies and services that help businesses achieve such an advanced environment are still major points of discussion.

According to a recent report from Food Processing, one of the most prominent implications of the technological change behind Industry 4.0 is a new focus on IT systems and communications in the place of specialized operational solutions. In many ways this technical shift boils down to two types of solutions - the exciting possibilities and the innovation enablers.

Exciting technologies transforming industry
The news source identified mobile devices and remote access functionality as the exciting implications of an IT- and data-focused future in industrial settings. These may sound like fairly straightforward solutions if you're coming at this from an enterprise perspective, but giving users access to smartphones on the factory floor and allowing them to interact with systems remotely is a huge deal in industrial settings.

"Giving users access to smartphones on the factory floor is a huge deal in industrial settings."

Imagine a near future where connected sensors and monitoring devices are integrated with an ERP system to provide actionable feedback directly to workers in near real time. From there, users can access key information on their smartphones any time, even if they are out of the factor, to ensure high levels of productivity and efficiency.

If a new sale requires a custom part to be made, a manager can get that alert on his smartphone, even when visiting the warehouse, see the request and reach out to the production team to get a timeline on the project. This check-in process even has the potential to be automated, giving users updates on their phones and allowing them to check on projects wherever they are.

However, there are a few major roadblocks to this future vision, including:

  • Safety - Industrial organizations can't afford to have employees getting distracted by smartphones or being exposed to any shock risks when using the devices in sensitive areas. Creating controls and policies around smartphone use is critical if industrial organizations are going to be able to take advantage of this exciting vision for the future.
  • Communications - All of this innovation is only possible if data is able to move freely across organizational barriers, something that often requires network integration. There are a few ways facilities can achieve this operability, including using serial-to-Ethernet terminal servers to interconnect Ethernet systems with legacy industrial hardware. Taking an industrial Ethernet approach to the network is also possible, allowing organizations to use a single network topology for all areas of operations.
  • Services - Apps and services are needed to empower the mobile user and support secure remote access.

The Food Processing report noted that mobile devices and remote access are the exciting technologies behind Industry 4.0, but cloud computing and Wi-Fi networks will likely be the innovation enablers that make these solutions possible.

Key technologies underpin innovation
A study from Technavio echoed the sentiment of the Food Processing report when it found that cloud technologies are among the major emerging solutions fueling positive change in industrial automation networks.

Cloud computing and Wi-Fi systems have the potential to be instrumental to the Industry 4.0 movement, with the cloud providing robust apps, infrastructure and platforms on an as-needed basis and Wi-Fi simplifying connectivity. However, both of these solutions highlight the even greater innovation enabler - the network.

Cloud computing success hinges on providing a reliable network connection to end users. Without that access, the apps and data housed in the cloud will be inaccessible. Ramping up Wi-Fi functionality, on the other hand, is only possible if the Ethernet network in place can provide adequate backhaul for the wireless network. This is especially difficult in industrial settings where there are a wide range of factors - everything from high warehouse shelves to thick concrete walls and equipment that emits radio waves during operations - that could prevent signal transmission. The resulting environment is one in which organizations will need to roll out a diverse array of Wi-Fi access points, and they're going to need to make strategic networking upgrades on the backend to make that possible.

Smartphones offer plenty of potential, but safety issues also come into play.Smartphones offer plenty of potential, but safety issues also come into play.

Industrial Ethernet under the surface in Industry 4.0 advances
Ethernet technologies are at the foundation of the technological innovation that is possible in the Industry 4.0 movement, but standard routers, switches and cables aren't going to get the job done. Automation networks require incredibly high levels of precision and determinism within the network, and the vibrations, temperatures and similar conditions in industrial settings make traditional Ethernet systems too limited for reliable use. Instead, industrial Ethernet switches provide the hardiness organizations need to enable the innovation that could happen as Industry 4.0 takes over.

Perle has over 516 models of Managed Industrial Ethernet Switches with the vast array of options including 10/100/1000 Ethernet, PoE, fiber and combo ports. Perle IDS Industrial-grade Ethernet Switches are ideal for the harsh environments found in industrial factory systems and outdoor applications.


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