That was one of the questions posed during a wide-ranging panel discussion held at the 2016 General Assembly Meeting. The panel quickly turned into the highlight of the event and touched on many forward looking topics relating to industry, workforce development, connectivity, and edge computing.
The first question posed to the panel was: Is Industrie 4.0 / IIoT affecting your business and if so how? Keith Jones got the conversation started by discussing domain expertise as it relates to IIoT. For him, as a control systems integrator, manufacturers are looking for assistance leveraging their data, but need someone with knowledge in their vertical market. Darrell Halterman, from GE Automation and Controls, chimed in that he agreed. Who better to find that needle in a data-haystack than a company that has been doing it for 20+ years?
The conversation then turned to the evolution of the control engineer and the workforce in general. While PROFIBUS itself was quite simple in its operation, installation procedures were often the cause of error. With Industrial Ethernet (PROFINET), those issues go away since it’s just Ethernet, and is easier to install. On the other hand, new complexities are introduced because of this fact. Since it’s just Ethernet, other traffic can reside on the same wire, so some basic IT knowledge might be needed. Therefore the role of the control engineer is looking more like a multi-disciplinary one. They need to know how to program a PLC plus basic networking and general computing knowledge.
On this note, Marty Jansons of Siemens brought up the topic of virtualization. With the availability of stable hypervisors and Real Time Operating Systems, the IPC (Industrial PC) could be making a comeback. In it’s heyday, the IPC was forecast to be the death knell of the PLC. What those prognosticators forgot was the blue-screen-of-death, which is unacceptable on the factory floor. With the proliferation of virtualization in the IT world, its beginning to make forays into the OT world (Operational Technology world).
The next topic was cloud computing, or more specifically edge computing. If we think of the PLC from the classic see-think-do routine it takes inputs, performs some logic, sends outputs, and repeats. If that PLC is now connected to the Internet in some fashion, what new things can we do? Most IIoT use cases point to pulling data out of that PLC. But what about feeding data into that PLC as inputs. Internet data points such as energy prices or weather forecasts might be taken as inputs just like any other. The PLC then takes those Internet data points into consideration during its logic sequence. This is a real-world IIoT use-case currently being developed by automation vendors.