OEMs and systems integrators are finding that they can speed development and reduce risk for edge computing, visualization, analytics, and IIoT project solutions by selecting fit-for-purpose hardware and software combinations.
By Silvia Gonzalez and Nishita Palkar, Emerson
Designers of automated machinery and systems must truly be multi-discipline masters to combine mechanical, electrical, and automation elements into a comprehensive whole. The degree of complexity is only increasing as end users and OEMs demand more data and analytics from their systems. Seamless access to edge-sourced data used to support analytics is necessary to develop insights for improving operational performance while enabling broader business possibilities, such as enhanced support and machine-as-a-service. These capabilities rely on effective edge solutions, which are combinations of hardware and software providing connectivity and computing for field-located assets.
Some larger organizations employ dedicated staff to handle the specialized aspects of automation engineering, but many companies must outsource the effort to systems integration (SI) firms. With so many interrelated details involved with choosing the right automation hardware, software, and networking, implementers of all types could use a way of streamlining the design process.
Some product vendors have recognized this need and offer ready-to-configure combinations of hardware and software to fulfill various edge computing, visualization, analytics, and industrial internet of things (IIoT) roles. These proven and optimized solutions significantly reduce the complexity of selecting, configuring, and supporting automation and IIoT solutions from different sources. This allows developers to focus their efforts more on creating valuable applications and less on integrating various sub-components.
Edge solution challenges
An ideal edge solution delivers substantial benefits and practical value to users at various levels:
A clear portrayal of automation system status is applicable to operators on the factory floor, in the control room, and working remotely, as well as front office personnel.
• Actionable information:
Comprehensive analytics are important to higher-level personnel, engineering, and maintenance to optimize production, improve quality, expand sustainability, minimize waste, and boost uptime.
• Ease of use:
Simple yet scalable edge solutions help designers and engineers efficiently create interoperable designs, which are convenient for users to work with and readily maintainable over the long haul.
Industrial automation and data handling projects typically require some arrangement of PLC and other edge controllers, HMIs, PC computing, networking, HMI/SCADA software, analytics software, and—now more commonly—cloud computing. It is becoming common to incorporate edge solutions into new designs, but it is equally important to select technologies that can be retrofitted into existing and legacy applications.
For new and retrofit edge solutions, designers and engineers sometimes use an approach of selecting many makes and models of hardware and software so they can openly connect to all sorts of edge data sources. However, there are technical and financial problems associated with these highly customized integration efforts, often leading to increased risk and project duration (Figure 1). Users would rather focus their efforts on solving problems like improving reliability, equipment health, performance, and efficiency, rather than worrying if edge computing hardware and software will work together. Some typical concerns are:
• How much effort and time will it take to choose a range of hardware and software?
• Is the hardware suitable and reliable for always-on industrial service?
• Are the various software packages compatible and do they interact securely?
• Are enough standard protocols available for connecting with the entire ecosystem?
• Does the selected hardware offer sufficient computing performance?
• Is the solution sufficiently scalable, without being overly specified?
• What happens if a user gets far into procurement/development and finds an incompatibility?
• What is the commercial impact of ordering from many suppliers?
• What are the long-term support costs?
Obviously, many issues must be addressed when specifying an edge solution before the configuration work can even begin. Therefore, it can be advantageous to build edge solutions on proven combinations of fit-for-purpose hardware and software.
Integrated solutions address issues
Even for developers with significant automation experience, it is a difficult task to select and validate compatibility with the variety of hardware and software products needed to build an edge solution. Many of these implementers find ready-to-configure hardware and software combinations—offered by a single vendor with deep industrial experience—are the best way to address platform selection concerns, and can proceed into development rapidly.
There are many benefits to selecting platform hardware/software combinations for creating edge application solutions:
• Operators gain increased visibility because a comprehensive platform provides options for local, mobile, control room, and cloud HMI functionality.
• Actionable information is enabled with on-site edge processors and/or cloud-based computing to deliver analytics.
• Developers and maintainers find improved ease of use because they only need training on one set of tools and capabilities to deploy a solution with IIoT, local HMI, and plant analytics.
• Engineering is simplified because the effort associated with research, testing compatibility, and interoperability has already been performed, initially and for firmware/software upgrades.
• Overall project execution time, and therefore time-to-market, is reduced, because developers can focus on the project, and not compatibility issues.
• Users build a productive relationship with one vendor, beginning with selection and ordering, through development, and into support.
• Pre-installed software, with activation and licensing from one supplier, is more straightforward to implement and support.
• The overall cost/benefit is typically favorable for choosing a fit-for-purpose tailored edge solution, as compared with a mix-and-match endeavor.
For the ready-to-configure approach to be effective, there must be enough options to cover common use cases, as described below.
Tailored solutions for real-world cases
Edge solutions are necessary to fulfill many roles, and sometimes more than one role at a time. They typically involve hardware more capable than a standard PLC, but often do not need IT-grade computing. In most cases, an edge controller—a deterministic PLC that also includes general-purpose Linux computing—or an industrial PC (IPC) are the hardware platforms of choice (Figure 2). A range of connectivity, visualization, and analytical software needs to run on this hardware (Figure 3).
Following are five of the most typical edge solution roles:
• Visualization: Improving visibility into machine operation and performance, and empowering operators with quick access to critical information.
• Edge Computing: Harnessing data from any source and using machine learning to create real-time insights immediately accessible to operators.
• Edge Control: Combining deterministic (PLC), non-deterministic (Linux), and visualization capabilities in a single device for real-time process optimization.
• Supervisory: Simplifying access and visibility to plant-wide analytics and performance from a single, integrated platform.
• Analytical: Creating comprehensive views of plant operations, performance, and overall equipment effectiveness.
Here’s how one OEM used a ready-to-configure edge solution to add valuable edge computing capabilities to their equipment.
OEM adds edge-based asset health option
End users everywhere have become aware of the ways that digital transformation and intelligent automation can improve production, reliability, quality, and sustainability. OEMs are taking heed and developing or updating their equipment to support key performance indicators (KPIs) necessary for improving uptime and increasing efficiency.
One consumer packaged goods machine OEM had already successfully automated their equipment with a PLC, HMI, AC drives, pneumatics, and I/O sensors. Building analytics into the existing PLC and HMI would take significant work. However, by specifying an analytical edge solution consisting of an IPC and ready-to-configure software, it was possible to add a complete asset health monitoring suite to the equipment as an option, without impacting the underlying real-time control functions.
This platform makes it easy to monitor the PLC-derived calculations, drives, pneumatics, and IO-Link sensors. Data are stored in a historian and made available for trending and analysis. Information is available for the overall asset, for sub-systems, and for individual components. The OEM benefited from improved equipment visibility, remote access, a wide range of dashboards indicating KPIs, and alert notification early warnings for component life cycles and failures.
Access via any device capable of hosting a web browser—such as a laptop, smartphone, or tablet—ensures information can be viewed by credentialed users, wherever they are at any time. By developing on a ready-to-configure solution, the OEM preserved their investment in existing automation and was able to quickly deliver a requested and valuable option for their customers.
Ready-to-configure combinations streamline edge solution deployment
Industrial automation hardware and software has progressed rapidly over the years. The newest frontier is providing edge solutions that can connect with, analyze, and visualize field-sourced data. While some of this functionality is possible with traditional technologies or custom-assembled hardware/software, there is a better way.
Ready-to-configure combinations of proven industrial hardware and software provide fit-for-purpose options for quickly establishing edge computing platforms. These pre-engineered combinations let developers focus their efforts on developing innovative edge solutions, while minimizing the time and risk typically associated with these types of projects. End users, and their OEMs and SIs, are finding that using edge solution platforms is the best way to implement IIoT projects adding immediate value and capabilities to their systems.
Filed Under: PLCs + PACs