The Big Problem for Device Manufacturers

machinedesignI had a very interesting call the other day from a guy in the controller business. He has a very typical product you’d find in lots of different applications. It’s an application specific controller that has some I/O and performs a task that’s important to a lot of processes. This specific application is in the automotive industry, but you find these kinds of application specific controllers in lots of industries.

Most of these types of controllers interface with a machine controller: either a Siemens S7 or some sort of Rockwell ControlLogix or CompactLogix. This gentleman’s controller mostly uses used RTA EtherNet/IP and ProfiNet IO software stacks to be a local controller to Siemens and Rockwell PLC architectures. In some applications he’s also implemented Modbus TCP, DeviceNet, or Profibus DP.

His question today was more along the lines of “Where do I go now?” He’s getting mixed messages from his customers and his field engineers. Essentially what he’s hearing is “We need business and enterprise connectivity” but not much more detail than that. He’s hearing about the IoT (the Internet of Things) and wondering how that should impact his system in the future.

This is all very complex for this guy and many other automation guys like him. Over his career all he has ever worried about was the factory floor. He’s developed expertise in factory floor controls, Programmable Controllers and I/O networking. He’s developed his product to integrate well into whatever kind of PLC architecture the customer might have.

But now it’s a new world. Where does he go from here? There are new requirements (vague as they are), security concerns, new terms, firewalls to contend with, new technologies like OPC UA and MQTT. His customers seem to want IT connectivity but aren’t really sure what they want.

So what did I tell him? Here’s essentially what I said:

  • There are a number of important issues to address with IT connectivity. None more important than security. The first thing you should do is to make sure you have addressed the integrity of your firmware. You need to ensure that every time you boot, you have code that was installed by you and not some hacker who intercepted your controller at the distributor or some stage of pre-assembly before it reached the end customer.
  • The best solution for IT connectivity is to deliver your data to some other device within the firewall and leave the IT connectivity to that device. This means that you don’t have to worry about it and that device can be a data concentrator that provides the data to the Enterprise / Cloud Servers. If you can’t do that, you’ll need to make sure that you only support secure pathways to the IT world. OPC UA, a very secure architecture, can be your best bet for IT connectivity.
  • If you are going to connect to Enterprise or Cloud servers, there are two things that most customers want: visualization and archiving. Visualization—how users can see the data in a controller—is increasingly important. There are many tools for visualization nowadays, but if you can get your data to a database like Oracle, SQL Server, or others, your data can be easily visualized. The second thing that customers want is archiving. Now archiving is a bit tricky because it’s not as simple as just moving data from your device into a Cloud server. What most people don’t realize is that you need to have some kind of “Store and Forward” mechanism in your device so that when that Cloud server isn’t available no data is lost.

There’s a lot more to this topic. If you’re a device manufacturer you will want to have me work with you to figure out exactly how your controller can become Cloud and Enterprise connected. Give our office a call to set up an appointment.