Applying the Internet of Machines to Industry
As the pressures and challenges of the industrial world evolve, technology solutions are being developed to meet these new needs. This deeper meshing of the digital world with the world of machines has the potential to bring enormous economic benefits. I recently sat down with Keith Larson of Control and Control Design Magazine to discuss the Internet of Things and Internet of Machines—specifically applying to industry.
Keith Larson: Can you talk a little bit about the pressures shaping the manufacturing and energy industries today?
Bernie Anger: I’m probably giving you a slightly narrower answer. Instead of telling you the problems affecting everybody, I’ll answer from the perspective of equipment manufacturers.
Most OEMs are dealing with a combination of challenges. For starters, they’re all competing on a global scale and looking at how to differentiate based on a global competitive landscape. There is also this need to get closer to customers, in order to gain a higher degree of intimacy. And lastly, OEMs are trying to find out ways to enhance the performance of the assets they make and/or develop new service models to create new revenue streams.
Now, take any combination of those challenges and add a layer of continuously evolving end-user expectations. There are two examples that come to mind. The first is maintaining support. You cannot ship and forget; you need to support the machine because more likely than not, your customer doesn’t have the resources. The second is personal experience. That little device in everyone’s hand, a mobile phone, has raised the bar regarding what we can do, where we do it and when we can do it—and now, more than ever, customers expect the same results.
Keith Larson: What are some of the technologies being developed to help tackle those issues?
Bernie Anger: Probably the biggest concept we’re proposing is the idea of leveraging technologies that were initially developed for the commercial internet, and then hardening—for lack of a better term—and utilizing them in the industrial world.
I often get asked, ‘What does the Industrial Internet actually mean?’ GE uses the term Industrial Internet to talk about three things working in sync. The first is brilliant machines, the second is advanced analytics and the third is people at work. So what does that actually mean? Brilliant machines are machines that can adapt to the environment they run in. Advanced analytics allow us to understand how things are running and how they could run if they used that information to improve performance. And people at work is connecting individuals at work or on the move, at any time, to support more intelligent design, operations, maintenance and safety.
Keith Larson: One big difference between the commercial technology space and the industrial side is the length of the lifecycle. You invest in a machine and you expect that controller to run for the next ten or twenty years, or even thirty or forty in refineries. How do you address the discontinuity of what’s possible on the consumer side versus the more conservative expectations of the control industry?
Bernie Anger: The way I like to rationalize this challenge is focusing on the dollar value of the control system rather than the asset it’s controlling. When you think about making a decision it’s very easy to focus on the downside of risk over the benefit of improvement. That’s why you see so many plants currently running with twenty-year-old technology. It’s just a missed opportunity.
We’re working on concepts to join various elements of a control system so that they can be replaced while in operation. We encourage our customers to think about the Ethernet as a backbone to everything they do. It actually creates the most resilient platform to upgrade one piece one at a time. We’re looking at a perspective where we have self-contained control devices that are purely software defined and hosted on a hardware platform, a different architecture that allows you to modify the machine without adding risk.
Keith Larson: It seems that this opens up opportunities for leveraging collaboration tools, to bring some intellectual property from over here and over here and download it to a machine in a relatively seamless, safe fashion.
Bernie Anger: When you use the word collaboration, you tickled my favorite cord. Anywhere you look, whenever collaboration is involved, it takes hold of the space and redefines how the players participate.
You saw GE announce large partnerships with infrastructure providers like AT&T and Cisco. Those partnerships are necessary, but really I see a future where optimal collaboration is a combination of large and small partners working on a common platform or architecture. That’s what we’re investing in, that’s collaboration—and it’s impossible to beat the speed of a collaborative environment.
Keith and I have had opportunities to chat over the last couple of years, and I think it’s already transformed from what started as an intellectual conversation to a conversion about concrete examples of what’s actually being done. Currently, we’re seeing the Industrial Internet create value in small, stand-alone applications. In the future, the most interesting developments will come from a growing stream of examples of the Industrial Internet actually affecting outcomes for large network systems. I look forward to sharing those with you.