The Cloud & EtherNet/IP

cloudsI read today that integration of the factory floor and the Cloud is THE biggest transformation in the manufacturing world since the PLC was invented! Could that be true? As big as the transformation from relays on the wall to a programmable set of relays on the screen? As big a transformation as from hard wired I/O to networked I/O? To be honest with you I don’t know how we get there from here.

I do know that when a factory is integrated with the Cloud:

• There is much better insight into current equipment status
• Production processes can be monitored closely
• Maintenance can be more scheduled and up-time can be improved
• Energy data can be collected across lines and plants allowing production to be scheduled at the most opportune times
• Customer orders can be tracked more precisely

All this and much more can be made available on the platform of choice: cell phones, tablets, and desktops. That’s a pretty impressive list and enough to make VPs of Operations, CFOs and COOs salivate. They’re being hounded by the Deloittes, McKinseys and Accentures of the world that want to advise on that transformation (and gather a pile of consulting fees). Those companies heavily promote the benefits and cost savings from that kind of integration. It’s one of the reasons why IoT and the Cloud are such media favorites.

And we can’t forget the vendors in all this. They want to sell you all the equipment to implement this kind of system and are picturing massive sales opportunities. They want to be your supplier to bring all that information together and, if they’re lucky, you’ll agree to store it in their proprietary Cloud platform where they can sell you access to your data. It’s a great business model – for them.

It makes a lot more sense if you are starting with a green field – a brand new factory. The systems to do all this can be complex and there are a lot of choices, but you can work through all that and build a pretty impressive infrastructure that’s going to offer a lot of the benefits described above.

But what if you’re not in a green field. What if you’re like most controls people and have an AB ControlLogix or CompactLogix using EtherNet/IP to run a line with motor drives, encoders, tank level meters, and all the other kinds of devices you find in a system today? What do you do? What do you say to your COO who just had his meeting with Accenture and is all revved up to start collecting data and getting Cloud integrated?

That’s a little more difficult. There are operational issues, platform issues, and security issues to say the least. The ODVA is promoting a CIP to Cloud infrastructure in PLCs and in end devices. I don’t know if CIP is that accommodating for more general application data transfer. There’s the issue of whose platform to use. Everybody and his brother wants your data on their platform. What does it tell you that the majority of Microsoft revenue comes from selling you access to your data in their Cloud? You could go that route, but maybe you want to keep control of your data.

Security issues are an even bigger hassle. Do you bypass all your IT policies and procedures by going with some cellular or GSM transmission scheme? Do you butt heads with your IT guys and ask for a hole in the firewall to transfer this data? Do you use some kind of connection that is only outgoing? The security professionals will tell you that there is no connection that can’t be misused. Or, do you buy any one of the myriad of devices that can sit on your EtherNet/IP network and securely (they’ll assure you) transfer your data?

There are a lot of difficult choices to make. I’m going to make a point of covering that all in more detail in the coming months.