Search Engines and Smart Phones Drive the Industrial Internet: The Rise of Connected Controls

Digital Controls

As I think about this new era of “futurized controls” and the Internet of Things (IOT) I wonder: What new technologies have propelled us to this Digital Industrial era and what does it mean for the controls industry?

What enabled the Industrial Internet? Was it smaller, more powerful computers? New cyber technologies? Perhaps modeling of OEM assets has been perfected? I don’t think the era of Big Data started due to any singular technological advancement; it was a culmination of several smaller things.

First, we are now reaching a point where we can’t individually maintain the growing number of assets. For example, there are 50,000 wind turbines in the U.S. Five years ago, there were half that many and two years before that, there were one quarter. In the 2000s wide-scale data was unnecessary. At the time, the industry could operate on a 1-to-1 scale. That’s no longer possible with such a large industrial asset population. 

We now have to think in terms of “many-to-one.” Think about Internet search engines in the mid-1990s. Webpage links became so abundant, users couldn’t maintain a list of individual URLs. Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and Bing became the “many-to-one” data managers for billions of webpages. Today, the digital controls industry is searching for their “search engines” to support the millions of installed-base assets. 

Secondly, because these industrial assets are so complex, they require numerous digital controls to operate them efficiently. And as the result of low-cost controls, these individual systems become siloed within the sub-components of an asset. The result? Controls components become downgraded with less features and lower interconnectivity. A given industrial asset could have 7-10 digital systems with no inter-communication. The system begins looking like a “one-piece-at-a-time” facility with a low cost, but very unique footprint. Think of all the individual PCs before the Internet connected them. 

The emergence of the IOT promises these interconnections, at a small cost. And, it brings customer value back to a holistic view rather than a collection of unmanageable, individual subsystems. 

Finally, in the age of the smart phone, customers demand simplicity and easy to access data. Imagine traveling through an airport without accessing the latest gate changes, texting your loved ones the moment you take off, or checking your email as soon as your airplane touches down. 

Because of this personal connectivity, in the industrial world, operators aren’t willing to wait 10 minutes for an update on a machine’s emissions. Nor do they want to venture out to a far-away platform to get updates on a transmitter. They don’t want to phone the control room to confirm that levels are normal. They want up-to-date information on even the most minute detail of a system. The industry is demanding the same benefits they see in the consumer world from a connected grid. 

We’re close to this digital harmonization. Because of this tipping point toward value-added connectivity over low-cost “sub-components,” there has been a shift to communizing platforms in an integrated control system. Apple is a prime example. True Apple consumers buy an iMac, iPhone, and an iPad because they have seamless connectivity and operate on the same base platform. Industrial customers are demanding the same thing. This is what the IOT is all about, and we’re bringing it to them.

Max Erwin

As a Controls Client Manager for GE’s Automation & Controls, Max Erwin works with end users, system integrators and EPCs in the DCS industry. Max has over eight years of experience in the power generation world with emphasis on heavy-duty gas turbines and aero derivative turbines. With involvement on over a dozen gas turbine facilities, Max’s system-level focus is BOP solutions that cover plant-wide operations. He holds a Master’s of Engineering degree from the University of Virginia, and currently resides in Houston.

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