Microservices Connect Legacy Assets to the IIoT

May 18, 2018 John Blyler

Without connectivity, the Factory 4.0 movement would grind to a halt. Yet 92% of the world's machines are not connected. The problem: an abundance of legacy assets that were never designed to be connected to the Internet.

Getting legacy equipment online is a critical step. It is the only way manufacturers can improve effectiveness of older equipment, a prerequisite to optimizing overall operations.

In other words, without full visibility and control over all assets, manufacturers will not be able to optimize their business as a whole. Gaps in information and data from unconnected assets will lead to unpredictable downtime, quality control issues, and other disruptions that will impact the entirety of operations.

Connectivity Is the First Step

In an ideal world, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) would enable every manufacturer to minimize unplanned asset downtime, predict the best time to perform equipment maintenance, and uncover process deficiencies that affect product quality.

The reality is quite different, says Daniel Collins, Director of ADLINK IoT for the Americas.

“We are actually far from that solution. Most of our clients still don't have remote monitoring of equipment. They have to walk up to a machine to perform visual inspections. That's why the capability to connect to anything and stream that data anywhere is the most powerful piece of IoT as it stands today,” Collins says.

The main challenge to legacy connectivity is that older assets were built for a highly siloed world. Most manufacturing equipment was designed to communicate locally, and then only with other systems from the same vendor.

“In today's brownfield world, deployed assets with long life cycles were not built to communicate with the cloud,” notes Collins.

In this environment of closed systems, getting data onto the IIoT Internet has proven difficult. To close this gap, manufacturers need systems that can translate proprietary data into a shared language.

But moving to standards-based connectivity is only the first step. Now the question becomes what to do with all that data. Should it be processed at the asset, within the confines of the factory (i.e., the edge), or in the cloud? This question has implications for cost, responsiveness, and security.

Today's Solution Will Be Different Tomorrow

Answering these questions requires an understanding of the available bandwidth and processing power available at the asset, edge, and cloud. Further questions about data security and asset management must also be considered.

Consider the benefits of processing data near the source. With this approach, only critical data such as urgent alerts are sent to the top-level monitoring systems. Among other benefits, this shortens data processing time while also reducing bandwidth issues on the network.

Manufacturers must also find a way to reconcile the very different worlds of the factory floor and the data center. Who will have responsibility for maintaining the IIoT network, for example? IT staff or factory operations personnel?

Even addressing all of these issues will not guarantee a headache-free future because conditions will change over time. Fluctuating market demands, new types of automation, and other changes to the manufacturing process will result in tweaks to the original solution.

How does one build a scalable, flexible system that doesn't lock the manufacturer into initial decisions but instead ensures room to grow and adapt?

What is needed is a scalable, secure, end-to-end platform that reaches from the asset to the edge and to the cloud. ADLINK has partnered with Intel® to provide an end-to-end solution that does just that.

Three-Pronged Approach

The ADLINK Vortex Edge solution provides a ready-to-deploy, end-to-end solution that leaves nothing out—not even legacy assets. According to Collins, the Vortex Edge uses a three-pronged approach:

  • Connect—The microservices-based platform can connect to virtually any asset. This enables connections to the previously un-connectable systems to capture and generate data.
  • Stream—After the asset has been connected, real-time data is now available to any internal IT or OT systems, third-party vendors, any cloud platform, or even other assets.
  • Control—The platform provides feedback and control capabilities such as end-point monitoring, device management, analytics, and more, so the connected assets can be updated and secured as needed.

The ultimate goal is to connect many different things into a common platform that is then available for all of the other partners and vendors involved in delivering IoT insight (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Vortex Edge is part of a larger vision to connect all factory assets. (Source: ADLINK)

The Intel partnership is essential to this strategy, as the company offers the scalable performance and the standards-based technology needed to connect to the various asset types throughout the factory. Intel® technology is particularly well suited to the microservices approach, giving manufacturers a way to bridge the gap between propriety factory systems and the open IT environment.

These microservices greatly simplify data sharing among operational equipment (such as rotating machinery), edge computing hardware (such as servers within the factory), and enterprise applications (which may be hosted on any cloud).

Once this data is available, it can be consumed by any edge- or cloud-based analytic service that the customer prefers—finally giving manufacturers full command of their operations.

In the Field

The value of the Vortex Edge solution was recently highlighted in an emergency response situation in which nearly 900 diesel generators were spread throughout a hurricane-ravaged area. The company maintaining the generators had no information about the condition of these generators unless it dispatched a crew to visually inspect each one.

The damage caused by the hurricane and the general terrain's ruggedness meant that visiting a generator two miles away could take up to an hour. Further, crew limitations on the ground reduced visual inspections of each of the 900 generators to only 15 minutes per day.

For every other minute of the day, the company had zero insight into each generator's condition. It did not know if a generator was malfunctioning, had run out of fuel, or even if it had burst into flames—a recurring problem that could put already hard-hit communities at further risk.

Implementing the Vortex Edge solution allowed the maintenance company to connect to the generator control system and stream all data points and alerts back to its home base, thus monitoring all of these assets remotely at all times.

Further, all of this data was streamed to a cloud solution where a dashboard helped it optimize routes to minimize fuel consumption.

It Begins with Connectivity

While the idealized world for IIoT is not yet a reality, complete connectivity of all assets and data is now achievable. The first step is to get legacy assets connected. With microservices-based approaches like Vortex Edge, taking that first step has never been easier.

About the Author

John Blyler

John covers today’s latest high-tech, science and even science fiction in blogs, magazine articles, books and videos. He is an experienced physicist, engineer, journalist, author and professor who continues to speak at major conferences and before the camera on Chipestimate.com TV.

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