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Industrial Automation: 3 Trends Driving Industry 4.0 Innovation

Looking Below the Surface

When you hear the words “industrial automation” or “Industry 4.0”, what comes to mind? Do you immediately think of the advanced technologies driving industrial transformation – like AI and machine learning? Maybe you’re more intrigued by the impact that industry-4.0-powered capabilities, like predictive maintenance or improved big-data analytics, can have on your production and manufacturing processes, but not things like Cloud PLC.

These are certainly some of the most visible and exciting aspects of industrial automation, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. What’s happening under the surface is a whole-scale shift in industrial networking architectures. 

“One of the more under-played, but critical aspects of enabling the next era of intelligent automation is a reinvention of industrial networking architectures, away from proprietary protocols and locked-down information silos to support of open standards, interoperability, and real-time data exchange.”Automation World

From manufacturing plants to smart cities to oil refineries and beyond, industrial operators are increasingly making the shift from traditional master/slave protocols to ones that enable efficient communication between the wide variety of distributed sensors and devices that are necessary to support the most cutting-edge intelligent automation applications.

Key to this transformation are three advancements:


1. Publication/Subscribe (Pub/Sub) Architecture

As mentioned above, traditional PLC/SCADA architectures are built around a master/slave communication model, wherein the master (e.g. the PLC) sends the request for information and the slave (e.g. a sensor or device) responds at set intervals. This model can become cumbersome as more sensors and devices are added and connected to the “master” and to each other. The Pub/Sub architecture decouples endpoint devices from the applications, and uses a central broker (see an example of a broker below with MQTT) to receive and distribute all data. Think of this model as a telephone operator – routing messages and calls directly from the source to the desired endpoint. 

The benefits of the pub/sub model are three-fold:

  • Improves Network Traffic – It only communicates data when it changes—static data is not repeatedly sent
  • Improves Device/Sensor Speed – It centralizes communication, so data is relayed to any dependent applications or device that needs it
  • Lowers Development Costs & Time – It also improves interoperability between devices that might have traditionally required custom code to communicate

2. Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) Protocol

MQTT is an open standard, lightweight, pub/sub network protocol that transports messages between devices. According to The Eclipse Foundation’s 2019 IoT Developer Survey, it is emerging as the standard for Internet of Things (IoT) and IIoT applications. That’s because its unique communication model dramatically increases the efficiency, security of industrial networks and enables applications to easily hook into public cloud infrastructures:

  • MQTT acts like a central broker and helps industrial systems overcome some of the congestion inherent with the one-to-one or on-to-many communication of traditional PLC/SCADA applications.
  • MQTT has small data overhead leading to fast transfer of data, which is ideal for the efficient operation of IIoT applications.
  • MQTT enables greater security. With MQTT data access rights for the entire network can be managed in one location, and because of the way that MQTT connections are established, there is no need to create firewall exceptions for inbound MQTT traffic. 
  • MQTT is supported by cloud services, including Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, making it a critical component for organizations looking to transition to cloud PLC/IIoT.

3. Cloud PLC Infrastructure

Empowered by improvements to cloud reliability, security, and development tools, industrial organizations are transitioning away (where possible) from on-site PLCs and SCADA systems, and leveraging IIoT applications that push data directly to the cloud. Unlike on-premise software that has to be installed and updated regularly, new Cloud PLC infrastructure is a much more effective option for monitoring, operating and analyzing the data gathered by industrial sensors and devices. 

  • Cloud PLC reduces the need for on-premise software and application installation and updates
  • Cloud PLC allows system admins to access systems from anywhere on almost any device – perfect for maintaining operations in a time when our normal workplace operations have been disturbed by a world health crisis
  • Cloud PLC provides accessibility to machine learning tools that help organizations make meaning of their big data output

All three of these advancements are helping drive industry 4.0 forward – powering a significant shift in the way that industrial networks operate and communicate. As a result, industrial architectures are becoming more efficient, more resilient and, perhaps most importantly, they’re finally able to capitalize on the data produced by their components to improve safety, health and performance of their assets.