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Digital technologies have been transforming our world for the past few decades. For instance, the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing have induced an evolution in the way we as society live our everyday lives as well as how many enterprises conduct business. This evolution has started to enter the industrial realm, most notably the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 and how these forces have driven other innovative ideas such as smart factories.

Smart factories can achieve significant advancements with IIoT and cloud technologies. For example, predictive analytics using data from the IIoT and processed in the cloud enable optimizations of various processes for smart factories. However, many industrial organizations, including those in the steel industry, have systems with more stringent requirements, such as real-time computational and communication constraints, that cannot be offered by the cloud.

To address these limitations, fog computing has emerged. It is a new paradigm of computing that will provide significant benefits to industry.

In this blog post, I will discuss these interconnected ideas and the relationships between the IIoT, cloud computing and fog computing, review some of the benefits and problems being solved, describe how the steel industry will be able to take advantage of this new paradigm in the near future and discuss the importance of cybersecurity and how it must be viewed as a fundamental component of this entire ecosystem of technology.

Understanding the Key Concepts

Let’s begin by asking: what is a smart factory?

A smart factory is a highly digitized and networked production environment containing numerous devices (things) with computing and communication capabilities. Some of these devices only communicate locally with other devices or legacy backend IT systems, while others like cyber-physical systems can even communicate with other systems via the global Internet. Smart factories enable smart manufacturing, which seeks the utilization of smart factory resources to provide benefits such as robust, reliable and safe manufacturing operations to enable manufacturing automation, optimize processes by reducing waste/downtime and much more.

The next question to consider is as follows: How can we achieve the vision of smart factories? There are numerous technological paradigms being studied and developed to achieve the vision of smart factories as well as other smart entities such as smart cities and smart homes. These technological paradigms include the Internet of Everything (IoE), the Internet of Things (IoT), the Industrial Internet of Things and Industry 4.0.

All of these paradigms are highly related. For example, the IIoT is a subset of the of the IoT, and the IoT is a subset of the IoE. Let us explore these related paradigms further.

The IoE was introduced by Cisco as a system that, “brings together people, process, data, and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before — turning information into actions that create new capabilities, richer experiences, and unprecedented economic opportunity for businesses, individuals, and countries.” The IoT, however, is a technological paradigm based on things – objects with computing and communication capabilities embedded within it.

These objects are networked together to form Networks of Things (NoT) potentially using numerous different communication protocols. These objects can be accessed via the Internet via connectivity protocols executed in cloud computing infrastructure. These objects often provide value-added features to things, such as being able to view a surveillance camera video feed over the Internet or turning a light off in a kitchen while on vacation.

The primary difference between the IoE and the IoT is that of people and process. The IIoT is similar to the IoT. The main difference is that, by definition, the IIoT utilizes technologies and things that are based on industry needs and resources, whereas the IoT goes beyond industry and contains things of any nature.

Finally, let’s consider Industry 4.0 and how it fits into this picture. German Chancellor Angela Merkel states that Industry 4.0 is “the comprehensive transformation of the whole sphere of industrial production through the merging of digital technology and the internet with conventional industry.” This implies that with Industry 4.0, all entities associated with an industrial system such as manufacturing are digitally connected.

Forbes and Schaefer describe Industry 4.0 as a tight interconnection between the Internet of Things and the Internet of Services. All of these ideas reveal a type of equivalence between Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Everything, but with a main difference being that the IoE can, by definition, encompass all things, whereas Industry 4.0 has an industrial focus.

Foundations and State of the Art

One particular technology that is at the core of all the aforementioned ideas is the Internet of Things. The IoT is a paradigm, but it is also a reality—a highly complex system that exists worldwide. IoT research and development is advancing at a very rapid pace, and its adoption is growing exponentially.

Cloud computing plays a very important role for the IoT. Without the cloud, we would not have an IoT as we know it today.

Figure 1 is a simplistic view of the current state of the art for IoT architecture. To be brief, the IoT’s current architecture is composed of things that live at the edge of the Internet. These things, which are often referred to as edge devices, form Networks of Things (NoT), and they have the ability, generally speaking, to communicate with other devices or humans either directly using various types of specialized IoT communication protocols or via the Internet.

Figure 1 IoT Architecture – Current State of the Art.
Figure 1: IoT Architecture – Current State of the Art.

As seen in the figure, IoT devices communicate to the cloud via the Internet. State of the art IoT technologies use the cloud for data processing, intelligence and communication fabrics. For example, when one uses a smartphone to turn on a connected light in one’s home, the application on the smart phone communicates with an endpoint in the cloud, and the cloud then uses a pre-established, always-on connection back to the device with the given command. This is a type of command-and-control architecture very commonly found with IoT products.

Future Advancements with Fog Computing

The IoT’s current architecture works well for many application domains, especially within the consumer market space. However, there are various shortcomings of the architecture, especially for smart factories and the IIoT.

One of the most crucial shortcomings is that of time. Smart factories as well as other IIoT systems have many components (things) that are sensitive to time delays. This means there are real-time constraints for many of the components in a smart factory (the same real-time constraints that exist in legacy, non-smart factories).

Industrial systems utilize what is known as operational technology (OT), which is “the hardware and software dedicated to detecting or causing changes in physical processes through direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices such as valves, pumps, etc.” OT is comprised of systems such as programmable logic controllers (PLC), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), distributed control systems (DCS), computer numerical control systems (CNC) and, generally speaking, industrial control systems (ICS).

Many of these technologies, along with the sensors and actuators that are used by them, have real-time constraints. For example, a PLC in certain environments might fail if a signal is not received and processed within an order of milliseconds. This constraint poses a challenge for smart factories that need to send data to the cloud for processing. (The amount of time between sending and receiving data from the cloud is too large for real-time control systems.)

A solution to this problem, as well as various others, is fog computing. According to the OpenFog Consortium, fog computing “is a system-level horizontal architecture that distributes resources and services of computing, storage, control and networking anywhere along the Cloud-to-Thing continuum.”

Figure 2 illustrates how fog computing fits into the IoT/IIoT architecture.

Figure 2 IoT IIoT Architecture with Fog Computing.
Figure 2: IoT IIoT Architecture with Fog Computing.

In essence, the fog moves cloud-type resources closer to the edge where things and NoTs can use more advanced computation resources with much smaller network delays. With this architecture, smart factories can be achieved even for control system operations.

Above, Figure 2 illustrates where the “fog computing layer” of the figure encompasses Internet-connected systems between the edge and the cloud that can be used as a fog computing resource. Examples of these resources include switches and routers near the edge, on-premise data centers and even dedicated fog computing nodes living at the edge with the networks of things.

Benefits and Problems Solved

Fog computing will be a key enabler of the full benefits that can be achieved with IIoT and smart factories. These benefits include increased productivity, increased product quality and increased safety. IIoT will provide a technological path for clean and green manufacturing. As a result, manufacturing industries will achieve customer level collaboration like we’ve never seen where will be able to implement the ideas of mass customization and individual customization at scale. The potential opportunities to optimize every aspect of the smart factory are endless.

Challenges Ahead

Although many benefits are achievable with the IIoT and smart factories, there are some notable challenges that lie ahead. Cybersecurity will be one of the most – if not the most – critical obstacles to overcome if we are to see the full potential and benefits of the IIoT. System complexity and countless new cyberattack vectors will arise as more advanced IIoT systems come online.

This brave new world will require some evolution within all parties involved – including those who build IIoT technology, those who use IIoT technology and those who secure IIoT technology. Cybersecurity for the IIoT will require strong interdisciplinary collaboration between all of these associated parties. In other words, cybersecurity will no longer be siloed, and everyone will need to play some role.

We will also need to move towards the core of the problem – education. Our educational ecosystem has failed miserably with cybersecurity. Every single Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)-based student should be required to learn the fundamentals of cybersecurity so that they can incorporate them into new technologies.

Closing Remarks

This article discussed the technological foundations required for smart factory technologies and other paradigms such as the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet of Things, and Industry 4.0. Technologies such as cloud and fog computing were discussed to show how all of these ideas and technologies are interrelated. The Fog is a newer technology that is evolving and will be a critical component to fully achieve the potential for the IIoT and smart factories.

One of the main obstacles for the IIoT and smart factories is cybersecurity. Collaboration, adopting a building-security-in mindset and evolving our STEM curricula to include cybersecurity education will be necessary for achieving our goals and visions for a future world where everything is cyber, connected and smart.

Want to hear more on this topic? I’ll be giving a presentation at the Future Steel Forum on September 25, 2019. The presentation title is “Building a Foundation for Smart Factories in the Steel Industry with Fog Computing, the Cloud, and Cybersecurity.”

Learn more about my presentation, among others, by visiting the Future Steel Forum’s conference page.


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