The adoption of Industry 4.0, also known as the large-scale digitalization of industrial businesses, is rapidly changing the way industrial operations are run. This digital transformation has required significant investments from operating companies and their partners in operations technology and information technology. One pillar of Industry 4.0 speaks to ubiquitous connectivity, data, and information transparency required by industry, leading to significant changes in the way industrial work is organized and performed. For industrial operations the business goals related to safety, production optimization, reliability and energy and emissions are primary targets of these programs.
The available data from industrial sites has grown exponentially over the past two decades thanks to the increased use of intelligent devices, systems, and data platforms including smart sensors, automation and electrical systems, modern plant data systems, and hosts of application software; collectively referred to as operations technology (OT). Additionally, new high-speed device-level communication protocols ( Ethernet-APL ) are emerging, which will enable greater intelligence and data access from industrial sensors and smart devices. Even greater volumes of data from intelligent devices should be anticipated going forward. At the same time, the information technology (IT) space has seen innovations such as modern object data stores, the creation of massively scalable computing environments (clouds) along with major advancements in artificial intelligence (analytics). It is obvious, for industrial organizations today to want to connect their data rich OT systems and networks with the powerful computing environments available and managed by many IT departments in these companies. In fact, this has become a primary focus in many industrial organizations as they look to move data from their operations into IT systems. Of course, the ‘devil is in details’ on the best way to achieve this goal.
Despite these technological advancements however, many organizations with existing industrial operations continue to struggle to effectively connect their OT and IT environments in scalable ways. Many continue to use legacy point connectivity solutions to connect various plant and cloud endpoints. Open Platform Communications (OPC) is a standard that was popularized in the 1990s (then referred to as OLE for Process Control) as a means of interconnecting industrial systems at the plant level. While these solutions work well for point-to-point connections, they were not originally designed for the kind of ubiquitous industrial data access that is prescribed in Industry 4.0. Each connection must be independently managed and maintained, secured, and upgraded, and as the number of data sources and applications grows, the number of connections to be managed can grow geometrically, leading to complex architectures that are difficult to troubleshoot and practically impossible to scale. Legacy OT systems and networks were never conceived or designed for the open access desired by many of these organizations.
OT network load balancing, network tunnelling, and data security are examples of challenges that must be addressed for each connection to a host system. Legacy OT data plumbing issues have been one of the biggest technical barriers to the large-scale digitalization of industrial operations.
Legacy OT data Architectures built on Point to Point Connectivity Applications are Challenging to Support & Scale
Fortunately, new scalable industrial connectivity hubs and data brokers have emerged that provide centrally managed and scalable data access between manufacturing operations and enterprise IT systems, including cloud environments. With modern service-based software architectures, these solutions address the legacy challenges of connecting plant and systems, and in large organizations, modern OT data hubs can connect to hundreds of disconnected systems simultaneously, exposing millions of plant data streams to endpoints beyond the plant operations.
With the advancements in technology, new plant and enterprise network standards and designs have emerged which consider scalable industrial data access enabled in part by the new capabilities of modern operational data hubs. These modern industrial architectures and networks allow data at the OT device or system parameter level to be exposed and egressed at sub-millisecond resolutions if desired. Increasingly complex data structures (beyond time series) can be accessed alongside traditional process data, unlocking traditionally stranded data available from modern smart devices and plant systems. Below is a recently published architecture from LNS Research illustrating the use of operational data hubs and data lakes as a focal point for industrial data consolidation in modern industrial operations. LNS Article on Industrial Data Hubs In these architectures, legacy plant or enterprise historians are no longer required to broker data between the OT and IT domains as had been done in some digitalization efforts.
New Data Architectures are Emerging for Industrial Plant Operators – Figure Courtesy of LNS Research
As Industry 4.0 has gained greater momentum and wider adoption, it has also had a notable impact on greenfield industrial builds. As organizations consider the digitalization of new assets during the capital phase of these projects, they want new industrial assets to be ‘born digital’ and completely aligned with corporate policy around data access and governance. The requirement is for data to be available to anyone, anytime, and at scale, aligning with the data transparency goals of Industry 4.0.
Historically, digital investments were never considered or included during detailed project designs. As a result, industrial organizations often made these investments later (or not at all), resulting in an ocean of stranded data and information inside of the operation itself. However, unlike manufacturing plants of the past, the design basis for modern facilities commonly includes important functional requirements associated with scalable OT device and systems-level connectivity, high-speed networks that bridge OT and IT domains, modern plant data systems, cloud system integration, and so on. With some of the technical and organizational barriers common in legacy plant operations removed, the capabilities afforded by new OT and IT can be leveraged to its full capability. It is a journey for each organization, but happily, we are seeing large-scale industrial digitalization accelerating.
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