In this blog post, I’ll provide a little background on the industrial internet-of-things and the various products on the market today.

 

IoT vs IIoT – Same, but Different

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll probably have been seeing the internet-of-things (IoT) revolution currently sweeping through the consumer space. This includes things like internet-connected Smart TVs, fridges, doorbells, light globes, thermostats and cameras just to name a few. It seems that every few weeks, something new gets connected to the internet – IoT toilets anyone?

 

The same thing is currently sweeping the industry, with Industry 4.0 centred upon the industrial internet-of-things (IIoT). In this application, it’s more about machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, condition monitoring and predictive maintenance to reduce costs, improve reliability and reduce unscheduled downtime.

 

While the IoT and IIoT certainly draw parallels in connecting machines to networks, the requirements are quite different. IoT is perhaps the “overarching” term which encompasses IIoT solutions as well. However, IoT in general includes a lot of consumer-grade devices which are low-cost, have standard operating temperature ranges and are not especially hardened or ingress protected. These devices are also often produced with a short support lifetime, on proprietary “cloud-connected” systems with little scope for customisation or expansion.

 

The requirements of industry are different. Harsh operating environments with large temperature ranges, power fluctuations, vibration and EMI noise are common. Devices involved in production often are running uninterrupted over long periods, require long operating lifetimes, with the need for ongoing continued support. Such equipment has to be flexible as well, interfacing with legacy equipment such as PLCs or field-buses to collect data from these devices and where network connectivity cannot be guaranteed, make decisions at the edge rather than waiting for a cloud-back-end. Every installation is a little different, with very specific requirements. To achieve the necessary reliability requires a good design, exacting component choices, high-quality manufacturing and thorough testing. It also requires attention to the software, which needs to be robust, secure and upgradeable, backed by a support team capable of maintaining the system throughout its lifetime. As such, IIoT equipment tends to be more expensive, but it is an investment that will likely pay off, as long as the right equipment is chosen.

 

So, while every IIoT device is technically an IoT device, deploying consumer IoT devices in IIoT applications won’t always go well. Some people have adapted IoT devices for more industrial applications, which may work acceptably in some circumstances, but often this entails additional cost and may not reach the same level of reliability and ongoing support as compared to bespoke IIoT solutions. When your operation depends on the IIoT equipment, the reliability of your IIoT solution will be critical.

 

IIoT Systems & Starter Kit Market

While there is a lot of talk about IIoT and Industry 4.0, getting started in it is not quite as simple as it might seem. There is a lot of talk about IIoT, but at the moment, a majority of industries have yet to adopt it.

 

Industrial embedded computers can be found from a number of vendors such as Advantech, Phoenix Contact, CyberVisuell, Commell, GE, Logic Supply, Embedded Technologies, Dell, Harting, Beckhoff, fit-PC, Moxa, B&R, Omron, DFI, Asrock, Kontron, iEi, Xinc, MPL and more. There are a wide range of specifications – but many of these are ruggedized versions of the familiar x86/x86-64 architecture used on a desktop computer with varying levels of performance and power consumption. Many of the units have a significant power appetite, resulting in the use of fan cooling, have a larger chassis and lower IP-ratings. But most of these are sold as “PCs”, where the software that runs on the device is left to the user, requiring development input. With IIoT potentially resulting in the installation of many nodes over a network distributed over a facility, such solutions could prove quite costly and consume significant amounts of energy.

 

When looking around for IIoT Starter Kits, it seems there aren’t too many around, but those which have been identified are not always apples-to-apples. The closest unit I identified was a Moxa IIoT Gateway Starter Kit which is Debian-Linux based edge computer for use with Modbus with ThingsPro Gateway software and LTE-ready certification. However, this unit is made of plastic, with a -10 to 60°C operational temperature and no IP rating at all. Avnet’s MicroZed comes in an IIoT starter kit as well, but this is merely a collection of boards without so much as an enclosure – not quite “ready to go”. Some smaller vendors claim to offer IIoT starter kits for certain applications, such as ORing, but the details are very scant, which doesn’t inspire much confidence. Other established vendors seem to be adding IIoT tags to existing products, which may be applied to IIoT applications but it isn’t an entire IIoT solution.

 

As a result, it wasn’t possible to make any sensible market survey comparison, as apparently, the market doesn’t really know what a “ready-to-go” IIoT starter kit looks like, nor are industrial embedded computers a “standard” specification either.

 

The Harting MICA Family

The Harting MICA was first introduced in 2016, standing for Modular Industry Computing Architecture. The line of modular industry-standard mini computers with a volume of just 397cm3 are based around open-source light-weight Linux containers with no ongoing licensing costs, designed specifically for industrial environments. The family can be used in applications requiring a mini-computer, field bus gateway, RFID reader, energy monitor or secure wireless networks, receiving a Hermes award in 2016.

 

Specific advantages of the MICA include the use of hardened electronics with a completely passive fanless design, high EMC tolerance, industrial-grade connector and reliable IP67-rated enclosure.

 

At the moment, the family consists of the Harting MICA:

  • Basic
  • USB
  • Wireless, Wireless USB
  • Energy Management/Light
  • IoT Kit (such as this one)
  • 2

 

Conclusion

The internet-of-things (IoT) revolution seen in the consumer market is also sweeping the industry, with Industry 4.0 centred upon the industrial internet-of-things (IIoT). In this application, it’s about machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, condition monitoring and predictive maintenance to reduce costs, improve reliability and reduce unscheduled downtime.

 

While the IoT and IIoT certainly draw parallels in connecting machines to networks, the requirements are quite different. IoT is perhaps the “overarching” term which encompasses IIoT solutions as well. However, IoT in general includes a lot of consumer-grade devices which are low-cost, have standard operating temperature ranges and are not especially hardened or ingress protected. These devices are also often produced with a short support lifetime, on proprietary “cloud-connected” systems with little scope for customisation or expansion.

 

The requirements of industry are different. Harsh operating environments with large temperature ranges, power fluctuations, vibration and EMI noise are common. Devices involved in production often are running uninterrupted over long periods, require long operating lifetimes, with the need for ongoing continued support. Such equipment has to be flexible as well, interfacing with legacy equipment such as PLCs or field-buses to collect data from these devices and where network connectivity cannot be guaranteed, make decisions at the edge rather than waiting for a cloud-back-end. Every installation is a little different, with very specific requirements. To achieve the necessary reliability requires a good design, exacting component choices, high-quality manufacturing and thorough testing. It also requires attention to the software, which needs to be robust, secure and upgradeable, backed by a support team capable of maintaining the system throughout its lifetime.

 

Industrial embedded computers can be found from a large number of vendors but many of these are ruggedized versions of the familiar x86/x86-64 architecture used on a desktop computer with varying levels of performance and power consumption. Many of the units have a significant power appetite, resulting in the use of fan cooling, have a larger chassis and lower IP-ratings. Most of these are sold as “PCs”, where the software that runs on the device is left to the user, requiring development input. With IIoT potentially resulting in the installation of many nodes over a network distributed over a facility, such solutions could prove quite costly and consume significant amounts of energy.

 

When looking around for IIoT Starter Kits, it seems there aren’t too many around, but those which have been identified are not apples-to-apples, thus a market survey would not make sense. The closest unit I identified was a Moxa IIoT Gateway Starter Kit which is Debian-Linux based edge computer for use with Modbus with ThingsPro Gateway software and LTE-ready certification. However, this unit is made of plastic, with a -10 to 60°C operational temperature and no IP rating at all. Avnet’s MicroZed comes in an IIoT starter kit as well, but this is merely a collection of boards without so much as an enclosure – not quite “ready to go”. Some smaller vendors claim to offer IIoT starter kits for certain applications, such as ORing, but the details are very scant, which doesn’t inspire much confidence. Other established vendors seem to be adding IIoT tags to existing products, which may be applied to IIoT applications but it isn’t an entire IIoT solution.

 

As I’m more familiar with Harting for their industrial connectors, I was not aware they also provided an industrial computer. However, compared to the competition, the MICA does have a number of advantages including the open-source containerised Linux architecture with no ongoing licensing costs, hardened electronics with a completely passive fanless design, high EMC tolerance, industrial-grade connector and reliable IP67-rated enclosure. It also seems to be a good deal smaller than many other units being just 397cm3 in volume and also consumes less power with flexible PoE or GPIO alternatives. As a Hermes award winner in 2016, I’m sure the design is innovative in more ways than meets the eye.

 

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This post is a part of the Harting MICA CISS Complete IIoT Starter Kit RoadTest