The reasons for the massive growth in IoT applications, especially industrial IoT applications, are pretty clear and compelling. The single most popular IoT application I can think of is the now ubiquitous smart watch. Developers decided early on that automated data analytics that capture all aspects of your health, would be meaningful and compelling. I must admit, it is addictive to see all my stats and do comparisons to previous periods, or even others in my age bracket. If feels cool to be able to pull up all your information on a web screen or smart phone app. This is no question a killer IoT application.
But the reasons for Industrial IoT (IIoT) seems less compelling somehow. Why? Well most industrial applications have powerful control systems, either PLC’s or DCS systems, or a dedicated controller to run the applications. These controllers are well integrated into plant management systems and supervisory control room screens. Controllers can be designed to be fault tolerant so there is no single point of failure, they are fully aware of all things around them so that if something happens nearby, they can respond accordingly. And, there is no limit to the number of sensors that can be connected to maximize the information that is provided to the controller to improve intelligence in the hope of better uptime.
Given this, why would anyone want to deploy an industrial IoT system? There are two significant reasons which have become very apparent – off grid independent monitoring and specific purpose application analysis. Let’s explore both.
Off Grid Independent Monitoring. Do you really trust your control system? Is it possible that there are programming errors or that it has been hacked (remember Stuxnet). As plants deploy more and more automation, the entire process get more and more complicated to validate. Errors will happen. An off grid independent monitor does exactly this, providing critical process data via the cloud to everyone who needs it via a simple web interface, unrestricted. And without having to tie into the plant network, integration is seamless and near instantaneous. In most human activity, there is the person who does and the person who checks. Factory automation should be no different; there are things that control and things that check. IIoT is the check.
Specific Purpose Application Analysis. There are many applications which need deep understanding of the physics or process to fully comprehend if the application is running properly or getting ready to fail. Deep domain knowledge enables a unique and expert perspective on the application and how its running, in order to get to predictive maintenance or truly gauge the health of a piece of equipment. In the industrial IoT space, this deep application knowledge is baked into the device or cloud, enabling clear and unambiguous views of the true health of the equipment being monitored. General purpose controls programmers could never code to this micro level equipment analysis. Their focus is on the macro level control and integrity, which is great, but you will never get a sense of when something could fail because this is not the intent nor the expertise of the general-purpose programmer.
And if all this sounds like I am anti factory automation, PLC and DCS, no, not at all. I was one of those guys for the better part of my career. Having spent time now in the IIoT space, I can clearly see both sides, and why industrial IoT has become compelling.