By now it is clear that manufacturing is getting digitized – meaning that an increasing amount of data is being collected during any manufacturing process and this data is increasingly being analyzed to optimize efficiency, utilization, and to even generate new streams of business. This digitization goes by many names – industrial IoT, Industry 4.0 (a term coined in Germany), and industrial internet (favored by GE). In 2019, we are no longer debating if industrial IoT will happen, but, rather, what shape it will take – primarily to reap benefits related to production optimization and reduced maintenance costs. While these benefits may sound mundane, they drive real investment in the industrial IoT infrastructure because the payoffs are so measurable and immediate.
There is a massive amount of data in a manufacturing process which can be harnessed to achieve very substantial goals – predict faults, optimize equipment lifetimes, derive new revenue streams, and even optimize the production process to better align with market needs. Collecting this vast amount of data drives a sea change in industrial automation system design. At the most basic level we are witnessing a dramatic increase in the number of sensors deployed, coupled with increasing levels of distributed control – essentially processing more and more data at the edge to drive what I call intelligence to the edge.
In effect, the sensor is becoming the edge computation device. While the sensor size and form factor remain the same, the electronics inside the sensor must be upgraded to make it capable of edge computation. For example, to allow it to implement local data analysis, do real-time analysis, and run a communication protocol stack. All these electronics would mean microprocessors and/or FPGAs, a complex power tree, and even digital isolation.
Another important factory architecture change is that as controllers (PLCs) get distributed on the factory floor, they must get smaller to be able to fit on a sub-assembly line or, in some cases, even on a complex machine. We are seeing the rise of smaller and smaller PLCs – called micro PLCs, compact PLCs, nano PLCs, etc. But even as the form factor shrinks, these controllers must process even more channels of data coming in. It is not uncommon to find the number of I/O channels going from 8 in a single digital input module to 32, for example. These small sizes and higher channel counts are achieved by using smaller and more integrated components that offer both reliability and smaller size.
In summary, Industry 4.0 drives two key hardware trends: growth of compact/micro PLCs and the growth of intelligent, connected sensors. In my talk at the Embedded Technology Conference, co-located with Sensors Expo, I’ll explore how hardware innovation enables the architecture of these new systems. My talk, “Industry 4.0: The Small Technology & Its Role,” will take place from 1:30p.m. to 2:20p.m. on Wednesday, June 26, in Room 230B at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California. Hope to see you there – and be sure to visit Maxim Integrated at Booth #1109.