No Internet of Things without open standards - interview with our commercial director

In order to network different systems with each other, solutions are needed that build on a broad basis.

Klaus Rupprecht, our commercial director, explained to the TREND-REPORT editorial team why heterogeneous approaches lead to nirvana and which solutions exist.

Mr Rupprecht, what importance do free hardware (OS hardware) and open source software have in the context of the development of the IoT?
From our experience, the barriers to concrete solutions must be kept as low as possible. This applies technically as well as commercially. Before an investment decision is made in the direction of IoT, pilot plants are usually installed in order to make the utility value comprehensible and calculable a praxi. Thus, the use of open standards in hardware and software is a proven way to keep costs and time to market low for pilot plants.

Another not negligible aspect for me is to cultivate the knowledge and experience horizon of young, aspiring engineers. At the universities, these become large with the open standards, so to speak. It would therefore be foolish not to use this existing and valuable treasure in professional solutions as well. In my opinion, the quality of the open standards has also greatly improved due to the fact that not only ambitious hobbyists use them for private applications, but also very professional developer groups publish their results and thus the standards are remarkable in width as well as in functional details.

As a system integrator, we see it as our fundamental duty to put the open standards for our industrial customers through their paces before using them. Most customer applications therefore usually consist of a mixture of open standards paired with very veritable components, which are designed and marketed by specialists for specialists.

How can existing machines best be retrofitted?
In order to transfer existing machines into the IoT world, heterogeneous and minimally invasive solutions are required. Minimally invasive means, in particular, that we do not install any components on a production machine, for example, which performs its work safely every day, that have a negative influence on the availability of the machine. It can be seen that the time windows for the installation of additional components during the production process are tight. In addition, a change to the machine may possibly result in the loss of warranty claims against the machine supplier.

It is very interesting that there are often developments in the technical world that seem to be ahead of their time.


Dipl.-Ing. Klaus Rupprecht, Commercial Director, SYS TEC electronic GmbH

For some of our customers, retrofitting is acceptable if we install a parallel system that cannot interfere with the original control software and thus the processes. We also offer battery-operated sensors that do not even need a connection to the machine's power supply, which is tantamount to the fact that we usually manage without additional cable installation.

These solutions are very individually designed for the respective machine and also offer access to measured values that could not previously be recorded with the plant control system. Here we see in particular applications of predictive maintenance of wear parts on fast rotating parts of a machine. In short: How would it be to install permanent monitoring for axle bearings for any early failures?

It is worth mentioning in this context that we can send the IoT data via separate transmission channels. IT managers usually demand that access to shop floor data be permitted only via special gateways and strictly separated from the data flow to the server (cloud). The heterogeneous solution approach mentioned at the beginning is due to the fact that a technical possibility must also be offered which directly accesses the machine control data. This requires expertise in how the different control manufacturers allow access to data. In this case we supplement our devices with a kind of driver software that communicates individually with the system. Whether the multitude of manufacturers and models a real challenge, which we gladly face with components from our partner network. We see that there is no optimal connection of existing machines, although we would prefer to install a parallel system with our ecosystem.

What open standards and exchange formats are there?
It is very interesting that there are often developments in the technical world that seem to be ahead of their time. One such example for me is the MQTT protocol, which was already defined in 1999 and is now a recognized exchange format for sensor-to-cloud connections in today's IoT era. The fact that such technologies are already of older origin is therefore also a trivial insight. If one refers today's IoT solutions to machine-to-machine (M2M) communication of the last 20 years, we find that today's digitization is mostly based on a logical further development of established components.

The combination of different hardware and software technologies to IoT or better IIoT solutions is really new for me. The biggest driver for the IoT world is still the development and distribution of smartphones. The infrastructure elements that are available today due to the mass of smart phones were unthinkable two decades ago and data transmission via providers was a cost-intensive hassle.

MQTT ("Message Queuing Telemetry Transport") is an open message protocol supported by most cloud providers. As a client-server protocol, the clients send messages with a so-called topic to the server. The clients therefore subscribe to information, which is then passed on from the server (using a so-called broker) to the interested clients. Since MQTT is used in the width over TCP, classical Ethernet transmission channels can be used. Sensor-to-Cloud communication is robust with the use of MQTT in an industrial environment.

Our ecosystem works with this protocol, especially between sensors and the instance edge controller. We also see an enormous advantage in the fact that the clients are hardware-independent, i.e. almost any end device available today (smartphone, tablet, PC ... ) can be used, even in any combination with each other. From our point of view, the classic fieldbus protocols such as Profibus and CANopen will remain for a long time to come; however, the trend towards the use of Ethernet-based hardware could increase further, since almost all common protocols can be transferred by using this physics, right up to real-time data transmission from critical measurement points.

What can be achieved with the open standard OPC UA and do you see other standards establishing themselves?
Like MQTT, OPC UA is an example of a mature, good technical basis that is now finding its way into applications. Also born in the age of M2M communication, OPC UA is growing into an important key component. The central task is to define and use communication protocols that are industry-neutral and hardware-independent. As early as 2013, a survey on the "Industry 4.0 Platform" (source: Forschungsunion, Acatech 2013) identified standardization as the greatest challenge facing industry experts. In our opinion nothing has changed in this respect.

The networking of different systems (e.g. control to control, control to visualization devices, etc.) leads to nirvana via company-specific, heterogeneous approaches, accompanied by a waste of resources from valuable software developers, of whom there are known to be too few. It is therefore not surprising that more and more companies in the automation industry are coming up with OPC-UA-based solutions. As a member of the OPC Foundation, we have implemented our own OPC-UA stack on our edge controllers, primarily with the function of being able to use so-called third-party HMI ("Human Machine Interface"). We plan to expand the connectivity step by step and offer OPC UA as a link to control devices of different manufacturers.

The goal could be to bring OPC UA up to the sensor level in perspective in order to bring data from measuring points directly from the field level to the management level or even to the enterprise level. Why shouldn't the ERP software get and process status information of the machine directly? We see advantages here and already combine MES software functions with status data from the machine. This enables us to monitor the availability of our placement systems and, in the event of a malfunction, to react more quickly and immediately reschedule the faulty production.

If we look at fields of application in which IoT and IIoT bring particularly great benefits for the user, we inevitably come across the areas before, between and behind the production machine from a local point of view. We are talking about logistics and material flow. If we monitor our production facilities perfectly and increase availability and thus productivity, it is doubly fatal if material is not in the right place at the right time.

Many, very good wireless solutions for standardized networking come from start-up companies in Finland - no accident.


Dipl.-Ing. Klaus Rupprecht, Kaufmännischer Direktor, SYS TEC electronic GmbH

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So what could be more obvious than monitoring the material flow by means of a so-called asset tracking system? Moving objects (e.g.  B. transport boxes) are localized on location and quantity. This means that radio signal standards are required that are based on consumer standards such as Bluetooth. If these hardware standards are combined with special software stacks, meshed communication networks can be realized that communicate as mobile nodes with each other or on top of each other to a gateway. Here, special solutions are increasingly establishing themselves as standards, so that it will be possible in the near future to process different applications with one system architecture.

A combination of machine monitoring and asset tracking is already state of the art today, and a combination with intelligent lighting systems within the workshop is also conceivable. Here, too, the development of smartphones helps us indirectly. Many, very good radio solutions for standardized networking come from start-up companies in Finland - no coincidence.

Why does industry 4.0 need a semantic description of machinery and production plants?
As already discussed in the context of OPC UA technology, standardization is also the central challenge here. Imagine if we weren't looking for a semantic description. As a result, the zoo would not be controllable by actually identical machines via the individual representation of the manufacturers. This means that a generic description of the systems must be created that clearly defines the machine at the management and enterprise level, using the automation pyramid as an example. After all, you don't want to commit yourself to one supplier of MES software when you buy the machine, just because the interface is designed individually. The same applies to the connection to the leading ERP system.

From another perspective, a heterogeneous, non-harmonised presentation of machinery and equipment would lead to constant adjustments at (almost) all levels of data processing. It is difficult to estimate the costs that this would entail, but the benefits (savings through the use of IIoT) could be significantly reduced. In this context, it should also be remembered that machines and systems must be installed and maintained. It would be a horror if we would continue to use purely manual configuration in the future.

The maintenance departments would certainly quickly be overloaded. The semantic description means the unification of data. It makes sense to standardise or harmonise the data already at the component level of a machine or plant. Similar to the functionality of the USB interface, a system part responds with a description or identification that the software recognizes and assigns. "Plug and Play" was once the name in the PC world, today the term is changing to "Plug and Work".

In addition to pure parameters that define the plant section, it is also desirable to harmonize the graphic representation of processes. If the geometry and topology data of the plant part are provided, the corresponding visualization can be generated at runtime using software such as AutomationML. This means that the graphics are built up congruently on different HMI devices. As essential as the task of semantic description is, it is not easy to implement and requires central development. The support of the renowned institute Fraunhofer IOSB is certainly helpful for many companies. The term PLUGandWORK also comes from this source.

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