An Introduction to Industrial Use of Technology for Non-Techies

It’s increasingly obvious to me that the gap in the general understanding of technology is continuously increasing with those that are not working in the space every day. I am referring to industrial technology versus the general consumer technology market. The consumer technology market has made our lives easier, simplifying tasks and adding entertainment with intuitive technology that most individuals are happily leveraging.  As we have become consumed with our connected mobile devices, televisions, vehicles, home thermostats, refrigerators and more, there has been a building cloud of activity forming in the industrial side of technology. What makes the industrial space even more confusing is that we often interface with industrial technology on our consumer devices.   

It’s important for end users of industrial technology to have a basic understanding of what is happening in the industrial technology space. In this article, the terminology and need to treat industrial technology differently will be introduced, ultimately leaving you with a better understanding of what it is and how it can benefit you. Understanding industrial technology will help you better leverage the benefits, saving you time and increasing the value you bring, through new ideas and efficiencies; while doing it safely and securely.   The technology space is wide and the landscape is constantly changing. Throughout the next 12 months U.S. Water will be releasing a series of technology-focused articles on how existing and emerging technologies will change the way we all work.   

Why Connect; Why Innovate?    

It's human nature to engineer, to improve, to make things work better. With advancements in technology, industrial consumers are executing on a growing urge to connect the equipment and unit operations that make up their businesses. The reasons for connecting can be specifically wide, but in general, it is to increase efficiencies, yield, decrease costs, waste, etc; or to simply make things work better. The water treatment industry in particular has been connecting things for over 30 years. Due to the nature of the business, often times requiring regular or continuous monitoring of assets and conditions, connecting to remotely installed equipment was a major breakthrough at the time. It not only afforded us the ability to better serve our clients with asset protection, increased production, or mitigating risk to production, but also enabled internal efficiencies to grow our businesses.   

As water treatment industry technology providers raced to provide us and our clients with more value, they embedded more technology inside the hardware.   Before long, we had control systems with phone jacks and eventually Ethernet ports that remotely notified us of alarm conditions and served up web pages.  The complexity increased as we expanded this out to industry as a whole with many other networked devices with varying functionality, such as PLC's with network abilities. Global control networks and data systems such as building automation systems (BAS), Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems (SCADA), and distributed control systems (DCS) began emerging to bring all of these devices together into one centralized system. At the time these ideas were conceived, before widespread use of the internet, the networking of such technologies was intended to be accessed locally only. As such, security for these systems was not designed with access to the web in mind.  

As time progressed and we realized the benefits of the internet and the ability to connect, many of these systems were brought to the internet, some of them still in their legacy form. Since they were often times networked (and accessible) over the business network, security compromises became an issue. Some of the largest breaches to business networks over the last decade have been due to exploitation of access points intended for industrial or operational systems. A need grew to not only isolate the business information technology (IT) networks, but also to handle the operational technology (OT) networks differently due to the nature of the applications, systems, and non-human element.

At the same time the industry was progressing towards a dichotomy of IT and OT, the advent of the buzz phrase Machine to Machine (M2M) was conceived.  As industrial needs and challenges progressed along-side with technology, consumers began finding new ways to connect systems and equipment that were remotely installed. This was particularly important for the water treatment industry. Our clients began turning off analog phone connections, making network connections for equipment more difficult to startup and manage. In response, we began utilizing cellular technology to communicate directly with our equipment. This occurred far before the term M2M was coined, but the concept behind connecting equipment to a "parent" network or computer system was still at its core. While M2M typically implied use of a cellular connection to achieve connectivity, there was a growing presence of WiFi or Bluetooth enabled devices that were targeted towards the consumer and industrial market space, kicking off the advent of the more widely accepted term, the Internet of Things (IoT).   

IoT is fairly self-defining. By “thing” we are referring to any device or hardware that is connected to the internet, including the devices we knew before the term IoT, such as mobile devices, televisions, etc. But as the type of “things” connected continued to grow, the need to speak more globally about it arose. Today the IoT space is large and growing at a fast pace. As the IoT space grew, yet another dichotomy formed delineating the Industrial Internet of Things IIoT from the more consumer focused IoT. This delineation allows us to treat the IIoT differently since the “things” that make up this space have high impacts to business operations and most importantly, personal safety.   

To this point, we have only discussed the action of connecting devices or “things”.  But what can be done with the devices we are connecting or the information we get back from them?   

Connectivity for Control

If the device connectivity allows for it, we (or some other device) can connect from the cloud to control the hardware, like something as simple as turning a valve or changing a set point, or as complex as controlling a cascading set of control parameters. Cloud computing refers to the delocalization of computing, and in some cases parent or commanding systems. Generally speaking, we limit the actions that are triggered remotely, a concept referred to as “edge computing.” The edge is considered local to the device operations. The edge must be capable of enough computing capacity to control the local unit operations which might be some makeup of sensing and actuation. In the event that connectivity from the cloud is lost, intermittent, or too slow for the operations required, the edge can continue to perform locally so that operations are not interrupted.   

Connectivity for Analysis

The real value in IIoT comes from an organizations ability to unlock the value inside the tremendous amounts of data coming from devices. The analytics unlocked allow businesses to optimize logistics or operations and reduce or eliminate waste by identifying improvement projects or even automatically making change requests back to the edge.  In contrast to connecting for control, analytics are best run on the cloud side due to the heavy lifting required for computing. This limits the assets required in order to obtain beneficial results from the information collected.  Terminology such as “big data” have entered the space and companies are beginning to find ways of leveraging it to aid in business decisions. Handling of the tremendous amount of data and then clashing it against business information is difficult and requires dedication by organizations to achieve cost effective results. The technology market is beginning to push artificial intelligence (AI) to assist in the large task of big data analytics, but few companies have been able to afford the implementation.  

What’s Next

We have only scratched the surface of industrial technologies’ broad benefits, and throughout this series of articles we will dive deeper into the specific benefits various aspects of industrial technology can offer. We will discuss the compelling issues surrounding the IIoT space, the excitement over the emerging possibilities, and the concerns over cyber security and exposure. Regardless of the industry you work in or the position you hold, technology will continue to change the way we work and interact with our operational equipment. With a basic understanding of industrial technology opportunities and trials, you will be empowered to leverage and implement existing and future technologies for maximum benefit.  

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