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Industry 4.0: Connecting the Unconnected

Manufacturers link disparate systems to increase efficiency, improve security and create new revenue streams.

On its journey to Industry 4.0, Maxnerva Technology Services, a subsidiary of Taiwan's Foxconn, adopted connected-machine solutions in its Wuhan facility. By transmitting and analyzing real-time data during the manufacturing process, operators better control productivity, costs and product quality, thus reducing operating costs by millions of dollars.

A German manufacturer of ship engines had limited visibility into system operations when ships were at sea. Previously, little to no system monitoring was done during their travels because of the difficulty and expense of satellite internet. When they pulled into port, unanticipated maintenance could delay planned departures. But now, with edge computing, ships operate like floating factories. Maintenance is done immediately, and when parts and labor are needed, that data is sent so the items are ready when the ships pull into port.

These successes show how ADLINK, PrismTech, Intel and IBM are collaborating to not only provide innovative edge solutions to address today’s connectivity problems but also to enable enterprises to set a course for smarter factories.

Factory owners around the world have long realized the benefits of connected machines, but too often, language barriers have stood in the way of innovations. Many factory systems resemble a Tower of Babel: isolated machines speaking only in their native dialects—or refusing to communicate at all. As a result, getting these systems to talk to one another has been nearly impossible.

But now, edge computing is enabling innovative new ways to connect these unconnected systems. By serving as an interpreter of legacy equipment data, edge computing is helping manufacturers realize Smart Factory 4.0 benefits: lower costs, less downtime, more flexibility and increased productivity.

The Industrial Automation Black Hole

Legacy equipment is a major barrier to Industry 4.0 deployments. By some estimates, 90 percent of factory assets are not connected to a network. Rather than freely moving within the organization, information is stranded within islands of automation.

In many cases, legacy assets simply lack the capability to communicate. But even when legacy systems are network-enabled, there has been no Esperanto—no common way of formatting, recognizing and acting upon the data.

This is a problem because a typical factory contains many kinds of equipment from a variety of vendors. Some equipment vendors retrofit their machinery with networking capabilities, but they are often proprietary and expensive. They are unable to create an integrated factory solution that unites OT (operations technology) and IT (Information Technology). To make matters worse, the retrofit usually involve tedious development work by highly skilled specialists, costing tens of thousands of dollars—or more.

Historically, IT and OT networks have not interacted because their data-sharing needs were vastly different. Industrial enterprises have invested heavily in their current IT and OT systems. Ripping out and replacing their plant floor and IT enterprise systems is not a viable option. “Industrial automation has high CAPEX costs and long life cycles,” says Kevin Davenport, director of IoT—Industrial at Intel.

Filling the Void

Manufacturers have been searching for a scalable and cost-effective approach to connecting legacy systems. Edge computing offers that capability. An edge architecture places powerful computing at the network’s end points, uses standard interfaces to connect automation islands and supports the integration of OT and IT enterprise networks.

By putting intelligence near factory assets, edge computing can extract data from previously unconnected equipment. For example, the edge computer can tap into a machine’s diagnostics port to assess its health. Edge computing also offers a cost-effective and scalable mechanism for machines that do not offer any direct access to machine data. If the equipment has a user interface, the edge computer can use a video camera and optical character recognition to simply read data off of the machine.

ADLINK Technology Inc., along with its PrismTech subsidiary, has partnered with Intel and IBM to develop edge solutions for Industry 4.0. These market leaders pooled their collective expertise and leading technology platforms in industrial computing and artificial intelligence to create an end-to-end solution for machine maintenance and quality control.

The result is a solution that makes edge computing scalable, reliable and secure. The technology “helps manufacturers build high-performance systems linking new data sources to cloud and on-premises processing,” says Steve Jennis, corporate vice president and head of global marketing at ADLINK.

These solutions communicate data throughout a tightly integrated IT and OT network, dramatically increasing the number of factory systems that can work together. Consequently, new data-collection schemes and real-time analytic applications are now possible, driving real business value throughout the entire manufacturing value chain.

Also, says Jennis, “As manufacturers engage with customers through their product lifecycle, new revenue opportunities arise.” Suppliers move beyond selling a product and a support contract. Predictive maintenance data becomes a value added service, one helping manufacturers lower their operating expenses, improve yields and increase productivity.