07. April 2015

Internet of Things. Confused or what?

Welcome to my new series of blogs. In this series I will be looking at the latest buzzwords that I’m sure you have come across over the last 18 months.

Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, Connected / Integrated Industry are just some of the buzzwords being used by many large manufacturers. Hopefully I can shed some light on what this means to our industry but also in our everyday lives. Over the coming months I will be exploring this subject as a “philosophy” of how many manufactures are looking at how we work together in a connected way but also how this information can be shared across platforms. This gives us the background to understand the link between Industry 4.0 and the connected world.

A quick history lesson

We need to start somewhere so let’s go back a couple of centuries… Consider the development of industry over the last 250 years in regards to the leaps in technology development. Starting with the industrial revolution which lasted for a period of around 30 years. The steam engine was symbolical to the First Industrial Revolution. It started in a cottage industry for textiles and evolved into the mechanisation and mass production using steam as a source of power. The main basis for this was the abundance and ease of obtaining coal. This then took us through to the Second Industrial Revolution which was the development of mass production using assembly lines and mass employment of a semi-skilled workforce - think of the development in the car industry (Model T Ford circa 1908). This era had the development of the electric motor at its heart which was invented by a William Sturgeon mid 1830’s (Electrical power was still generated by steam and even today as much as 90% of our energy is produced using the steam principals devised during the First Industrial Revolution).

The late 1970’s brought about a change in the manufacturing process with the move into the Digital age and the Third Industrial Revolution. These included large scale changes in automation and how we communicate not just with each other but in an industrial environment. Defining how the manufacturing processes were linked together to enable repeatable processes.

An Industry 4.0 era

Moving into the realms of what is now termed Industry 4.0 where the underlying advances are based around the availability of information and data with communication at the core. Everyday objects are becoming linked and communicating with each other to perform tasks. For example our mobile phones with built in cameras and satellite navigation can be linked to our homes and our cars. You can turn on your video recording remotely to watch your favourite football team. You can even switch the heating on in your car on a cold morning using your mobile phone. The foundation for this has been the availability of obtaining information easily and quickly. The development of all of this is the creation of the World Wide Web (I will be looking at this a little more closely in an upcoming blog). This is where some of the biggest changes are occurring and this is in our factories with the basis starting back in the late 1960’s when a company called Modicon invented the first processor based controllers.

Automation as a means of “automatic” controls has been achieved over many years based on a variety of technologies, incorporating mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, electrical and electronic solutions. Even today there are some systems that use elements from all of these with the central processor bringing and marrying the technologies together to form a very powerful, flexible, replaceable and easily expandable solution to microprocessor based controller systems that we know today as Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC’s).

The development of communications between PLC’s and external equipment means that the link between all these elements plays a vital role in automation solutions and can be expanded very easily using a communication backbone. Once again this is the sharing of information that cuts across all boundaries from the “coal face” to the control system through to the retail sector and even as far as our homes.

This leads us through to the Industry 4.0 also known as Cyber-physical Systems.

In my next blog I will be taking a look at what is meant by “Cyber-physical Systems” and how this is influencing the move to a connected industry, taking us to the topical Internet of Things generation.

Where do we go from here? Read my next blog to find out.

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