25. July 2016

Integrated industry: new dimensions in communications infrastructure

Concepts such as Integrated Industry, Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things are now introducing more evolved software solutions into manufacturing environments at all levels, demonstrating the potential convergence of automation and information technology. This convergence is based on continuous information-creation networks over the entire life cycle of applications, permitting new services to establish themselves which are supported, in particular, via integrated software functions within the automation systems.

At the same time, trends such as the modularisation of machines and systems provide a high degree of flexibility for a seamless “plug & produce” environment. Important factors here are flexible, durable IT interfaces and module-neutral infrastructure solutions for supplying energy, as well as system-neutral networking and systems engineering to allow the connection of smart objects on the apparatus via hardware and software.


The key to these developments lies in virtualisation: a term that has become adopted along with the migration of IT and software to the shop floor. Virtualisation offers numerous economic and technical benefits, and has been a standard in IT servers and cloud computing for over a decade. On the other hand, virtual machines add significant overheads, which have so far prevented virtualisation from making serious inroads into the embedded systems common in production environments.

It would seem like a natural progression to introduce virtualisation to small industrial computers and embedded devices to achieve the same benefits as in other IT systems like simplified management, more effective use of hardware resources, and improved security through “sandboxing”.

New solutions

Unfortunately, the overhead added by classic virtualisation is not acceptable on the type of embedded systems used in manufacturing and machine environments. As a result, taking full advantage of these techniques in integrated industry requires new solutions for hardware, software, and system design.

Crucially, there is an increasing need for compact, but robust, solutions to perform tasks in the field: from collecting sensor data and the implementation of PLC systems to communication with data centres and the cloud. These techniques will enable innovative companies to design future production systems that are simpler, more modular, and more cost effective.

Such a solution involves the use of “lightweight” virtualisation using so-called “containers” (Fig. 1) based on the industry standard Linux operating system. Instead of using a complete operating system, each Linux container contains only what is needed to run the specific virtual environment: code, runtime engines, libraries, system tools, and applications - and all containers share a single kernel: albeit in separate protected memory spaces.

The fundamental technologies for containers have been around for some time, but until recently were complex and difficult to use. However, the proliferation of cloud technology and the exponential growth in the number of virtual machines has now shifted containers into the IT mainstream, and significantly improved their usability.

At the most basic level, a container is simply a file system containing the application and the libraries and files needed to run it.

Modular Industry Computing Architecture

Virtualisation on embedded devices for manufacturing use is now available in the form of Modular Industry Computing Architecture (MICA) (Fig.2). Using Linux containers on top of a streamlined base operating system, this approach is capable of virtualising field devices without the overheads of conventional virtualisation.

Each application runs in its own container, which also contains all the necessary libraries and device drivers. This concept completely eliminates package dependencies or incompatibilities. All communication between containers is IP-based, which provides a simple and secure application programming interface between applications.

In practical terms, MICA has been implemented in hardware form as a compact rugged computer, tested according to EN 50155 as well as other industrial and railway standards and including interfaces consisting of fieldbus standards and USB up to RFID and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) via custom function boards.

Thanks to its compact dimensions, built-in industrial connectors and integral 24 V power supply, the MICA hardware is ideally suited for integrating computer intelligence into manufacturing plants or for retrofitting existing plants.

Scrupulous use of open standards and open-source software allows users to prototype and develop hardware and software solutions rapidly to their own specifications.

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