Readiness for IIoT and Industry 4.0
In recent years, the adoption of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and Industry 4.0 has been considered as the key to competitiveness and success in business. According to official reports released by Gartner, there will be more than 20 billion devices around the world connected to the Internet by 2020, which means, the sensors, PLCs (programmable logic controllers), robotic arms, and assembly line machines in factories will be connected to the cloud and interconnected. IIoT is indeed an inevitable trend for modern industries to improve efficiency, productivity and reduce costs, and is often observed in logistics, manufacturing, utility services and transportation sectors.
In short, IIoT and industry 4.0 have been around and are not brand new concepts, as many industrial organizations have adopted some practices related to these 2 technological ideas. The question is “how ready are the industries?”
Despite the availability of IoT and cloud computing, IIoT and Industry 4.0 are more than just connected devices, and have dynamic impacts on existing business practices of the industries. In other words, are the industries ready for the new challenges?
MEC Computing Addressing New Challenges
Like all the trendy technologies in the history, all the technological deployments come with related challenges and risks, and it is the same for IIoT and Industry 4.0. In fact, it might be too optimistic to think that all the challenges and risks will be solved once 5G is released officially. It is necessary to focus on the associated challenges and determine how to solve the issues.
• Cyber security
Cyber threat has always been the primary concern for IIoT as it is easier for attacks to penetrate once devices are connected to the Internet. Connecting to the Internet means the vulnerability is exposed. To address the security issue, it might be a good idea to introduce MEC computing. Under the MEC computing architecture, the data generated from field sensors, PLCs and devices is processed, analyzed and stored (temporarily) at the MEC (Multi-access Edge Computing) gateway, instead of the cloud. This reduces the chances of data interception by unauthorized others.
On the other hand, MEC computing provides end-to-end visibility for the IT management to monitor the traffic. In the event of abnormal data packets, IT management can take immediate actions across the entire architecture to ensure the data integrity and network security.
One of the major concerns in the deployment of IIoT and Industry 4.0 lies in the bandwidth issue. When field devices are connected to the cloud, a tremendous volume of data is generated and bandwidth could be constantly occupied. Data transfer would be slow and negatively impact business efficiency. In fact, real-time communications may often be delayed.
If all the data generated and sent from the devices is first processed and analyzed by the MEC computing servers, the bandwidth will be far more efficiently used and thus performance is enhanced.
If data generated from factory sensors or PLCs has to be processed at the cloud, it is likely to expect high frequency of latency. In normal days, latency would not matter much, but when a critical decision has to be made, frequent latency will definitely impact businesses.
Again, MEC computing will dramatically lower the latency by making MEC servers intelligent. If data can be processed at the MEC, the distance for the data to be routed is much shorter, usually in proximity. Low latency makes real-time communications more resilient.
• Internal Integration
As discussed, bandwidth and latency are two major challenges which can be solved by MEC computing architecture. Besides hardware integration, internal software programs can be connected to the MEC computing platforms. This can be highly beneficial for field staff as their data is instantly stored at the MEC and sent to the server in proximity. No more long wait for the cloud.
After all, IIoT and Industry 4.0 are both about reduced costs and improved productivity. In fact, cost is considered as a dynamic force to enable the happening of Industry 4.0. As discussed, the challenges of Industry 4.0 have to be addressed by MEC computing, which also forms the foundation of 5G infrastructure. The central concept of MEC computing is the use of white-box hardware devices, integrated with multi-vendor solutions to run software virtualization for the floor instruments. Industries no longer have to rely on proprietary, dedicated hardware or software so that costs can be saved. Instead, they can adopt open architecture hardware to run a mix of open or third-party software to operate their plants.
One notable solution provider, Lanner, has been instrumental in supplying Intel x86 white-box servers that have been successfully deployed in various applications and have been pre-validated by many market-leading companies.