This isn’t your father’s internet. For manufacturers and other industrial production companies, the industrial internet of things (IIoT) promises unprecedented opportunity to manage assets and processes in real time from virtually any location and to connect disparate systems, teams, and sites. But to create the kind of hyper-responsive manufacturing environment that the IIoT enables, you need a robust network infrastructure that will support assorted smart sensors and actuators, augmented reality technologies, and more – and do so seamlessly and securely.
If you’re unsure whether your network is up to snuff to handle IIoT demands – and how to get there if it isn’t – you’re not alone. “I feel like (the IIoT) is still a mystery” to a lot of end users, says Heitor Faroni, director of solutions marketing at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, a provider of enterprise communication products and services. “They don’t know much about the technology.”
As you seek to discern what your organization needs to make the IIoT a reality, then, here are four considerations you should keep in mind.
1. Think “built to last”
The IIoT relies on the use of smart, connected endpoints (e.g., sensors and actuators) that track and monitor real-time performance of machines and processes. If you’re looking to increase the number of these endpoints and you’ll need to add more routers, switches, and access points in tandem, make sure that the hardware in this second category is industrial-grade, too, urges Faroni. In a paper earlier this year, “Manufacturing a Digital Future – Avoiding the Roadblocks on the Way to the IIoT,” Faroni noted that this enabling hardware needs to be “hardened to operate in more extreme conditions” and able to withstand heat, electromagnetic interference, and other challenges commonly found in manufacturing environments.
“A hardened network based on rugged components is vital in ensuring a reliable and secure manufacturing network, while being able to easily expand the network to incorporate new assets and technologies as they become available,” Faroni wrote.
The importance of making sure that IT assets are sufficiently ruggedized for an industrial environment isn’t always fully appreciated – and that can spell disaster, because as Faroni notes, “(e)ven minimal network disruption … can have ramifications along the entire production line.” When it comes time to select IIoT-enabling assets, then – be they routers and switches or sensors and actuators – it’s a good idea to get input from all relevant stakeholders, suggests Larry O’Brien, vice president of research at ARC Advisory Group.
“I think particularly the people at the plant level or the field level that are going to be using this technology, a lot of times they’re out of the loop,” O’Brien says. Everyday users know what kinds of conditions they and their machines face day to day, and they’ll be able to provide valuable feedback on what they need from a connectivity standpoint and the rigors that any new technology or device will have to withstand to be reliably useful.
Think of it this way: The average consumer in the market for a new smartphone may not know exactly how much data he or she needs in a month, but knowing whether/how often he or she anticipates streaming video, gaming, etc., and where the phone will be used can help guide him or her to an appropriate device and data plan.
So, “don’t leave those people out” of critical purchasing and implementation decisions, O’Brien says. “Everybody that’s going to be affected by implementing (solutions) like this, they’re all stakeholders; they all should be involved in some way,” whether they’re an operator, an engineer, a field technician, or a plant manager, he says.
Jim Mansfield, group manager for the automation process control group at Faith Technologies, echoes the sentiment. During the “discovery phase” of a network infrastructure upgrade project, in which an organization’s existing capabilities as well as its needs are assessed, pulling a multidisciplinary team together is vital, Mansfield says.
“It’s really imperative in a production environment…that the key plant personnel, including the plant manager, break down the communication barrier that often exists with the IT and IS teams whether it’s corporate or at the plant level. That has been something that is very difficult, and it has to do with ownership of data and ownership of network security, or who needs the data and why and when.”
Alcatel-Lucent’s Faroni adds that IT needs to understand the priorities of an organization’s different lines of business. “What you want to avoid is what we call shadow IT, where IT is not responsive and (operations teams) see them as a roadblock and they just don’t allow in; they develop their own solutions,” he says. “It’s important they cooperate and have a well-planned evolution of their network.”