As the concepts of Industry 4.0 and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) become real applications, an exciting conversation has developed around the integration of information technology (IT) with information technology. operations (OT). Major IT companies have actively promoted ideas such as workload consolidation for businesses to optimize processes and be more competitive. Some of the biggest players in automation technology (AT) are jumping on board. Greater system openness, real-time deterministic control with multi-core processors, integration of web and machine learning technologies, among other advancements, are all possible through the application of popular technologies to industrial applications. .
IT and OT convergence is delivering incredible benefits to machine control architectures today, as it has for over 30 years. While many vendors are just beginning to integrate PC-based technology into industrial automation, this is nothing new. The history of IT-OT convergence in automation technology dates back to the early 1980s with the advent of the modern PC and those who saw its potential for industrial use. The adaptation of these ideas follows the innovation diffusion theory, which describes how new technologies are adopted in order by innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), the late majority (34%) and, finally, the latecomers (16%).
PC-centric innovation in the 1980s
Around this time, the wider technological world began to develop the personal computer (PC) and related technologies for widespread use by businesses and consumers well beyond the levels of the 1970s. transformations in standard chipsets, board designs, and sophisticated operating systems. At that time, most industrial technology companies stayed out of the way of the PC. PLC platforms of the time used proprietary chipsets, board designs and, in most cases, programming software. Traditional PLC technology for machine control has evolved much more slowly than it should have due to an industry-wide aversion to change. As a result, the paths of hardware PLCs and consumer PCs would not begin to converge for decades.
While the majority of industrial suppliers and manufacturers initially shunned computer technology on the factory floor, small start-ups recognized that the two technologies could co-exist. Using proven industry standards and IT innovations, small AT companies have begun the convergence of IT and OT in manufacturing.
The first users of the 1990s
In the 1990s, both technologies continued to advance, with computer pioneers doing laps around traditional OT. Windows’ popularity skyrocketed and it became ubiquitous in almost every area of technology. By launching Visual Studio in 1997, Microsoft combined several programming languages into a single environment, which continues to evolve to this day. Industrial vendors that began implementing PC-based automation technologies over the past decade have seen significant gains in hardware and software performance that have far outpaced traditional PLCs. Successful companies have created new real-time deterministic control tools that can run on industrial PCs with standardized operating systems.
More and more automation vendors saw this opportunity and launched computerized controls. However, these early adopters realized that developing their own software from scratch was quite expensive. They started using off-the-shelf real-time operating systems, but often didn’t promote the solutions widely. Some notable crash-and-burns gave PC-based platforms a bad name during this time. However, many rigs were delivering incredible results in the field, extending their performance lead over traditional PLCs.
Early majority from 2000
The turn of the millennium brought new developments in software and multi-core processors. Major IT players like Intel, IBM and Microsoft have actively expanded into OT. Likewise, a select subset of the automation space has continued to integrate computing with increased real-time capabilities.
Along with these advances in automation and control, another major development was in networking. Industrial Ethernet protocols, such as Ether-CAT, have created significant performance improvements and a forward path from legacy fieldbuses. This is another example of IT and OT convergence, with Ethernet merging with fieldbus technology. Ether-CAT has eliminated the complexity and cost of switches and additional hardware while providing deterministic control with up to 65,535 devices per network. It’s the result of the same PC-based control innovators who carefully considered the potential of Industrial Ethernet, combining its openness and acceptance with the functionality of a fieldbus.
Today’s Late Majority
From automation software applications in smartphones to multi-core Intel Xeon processors in controllers, IT-OT convergence continues to accelerate today. For example, contemporary HMIs now commonly rely on web technologies, and standards such as MQTT and JSON are implemented in IIoT contexts.
Gigabit Ethernet technologies such as Ether-CAT G are also becoming essential as machines become more complex. The industry is also beginning to apply machine learning and other artificial intelligence technologies.
Fortunately, manufacturers’ reluctance to implement PC-based technologies continues to evaporate as they see the benefits of computer-based technologies in the industry. Decades of IT-OT advances have shown that any computing principle applied to OT products must be deterministic, reliable, available for many years, and implemented effectively. Done correctly, IT-OT integration produces far better results than traditional platforms can accomplish.
For more information: www.beckhoff.com/IoT