Untangling Industrial IoT networking

Industrial IoT (IIoT) systems are rapidly growing larger, more distributed and gaining new capabilities. Similarly, the diversity of IoT applications will result in diversity in networking needs. Our Mobility Report forecasts 20 billion connected IoT devices by 2023, which will bring scale to the equation too. IIoT system designers and network engineers need to consider many different aspects when designing industrial networking systems. This includes the choice of networking technologies, that will lead to a successful network deployment.

Man in robot factory using AR

Research Fellow IoT

Research Fellow IoT

Networking technologies are plentiful in the industrial domain. What is missing is guidance for network solutions architects across industry sectors to make the right choices, and that is what we have begun in the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC).

The Industrial Internet Consortium is one of the world’s leading organizations which aims to transform business and society by accelerating the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Together our goal is to deliver a trustworthy IIoT in which the world’s systems and devices are securely connected and controlled to deliver transformational outcomes.

The nature of industrial networking deployments

Industrial networking is very different than networking for consumers or enterprises. The requirements from applications on the supporting networks are very diverse and can span many different industry sectors such as utilities, transportation, manufacturing and healthcare. Technical requirements can range from relaxed to highly demanding.

Deployment scenarios will also vary. The physical conditions found in mining differ greatly compared to those found in agriculture. Operational factors to consider are if connected machinery will be moving, like with robots, or require reconfigurability, such as with adaptable manufacturing cells. The lifecycle of deployments, which can be decades, must also be considered in a sustainable technology strategy.

Technology never stops to evolve

Industrial networking infrastructures and the technologies supporting them are continuously evolving. As new technologies are introduced, network capabilities grow and enable industrial assets, such as machines, sites and environments, to connect to professionals and enterprises supporting these diverse applications across a wide range of industry sectors.

Industrial networking technologies provide the foundation for applications enabling the digitalization of industries that target increases in, for example, productivity and profitability. There is a wealth of choices in technologies, including different variants of fieldbuses, industrial ethernet and the IEEE family of wireless, like WiFi and 802.15.4. Cellular technologies in particular are rapidly evolving to support a vast range of IoT use cases, both within 4G/LTE, like NB-IoT for massive deployments with relaxed requirements and with 5G NR that can target mission critical application that require ultra-reliable low latency communication (URLLC). 5G is, in a sense, unique as it can support a range of different applications and deployment scenarios within the same system solution.

Let’s take a closer look at two scenarios.

Application 1: The remotely operated mine

The mining industry has benefited from the use of wireless solutions and has been deploying wireless remote control and electrification of vehicles for more than two decades. There is a constant need for increased efficiency and improved safety using fewer people. This is accomplished through a high degree of automation utilizing remotely controlled machinery and vehicles. In many cases, the depth of mines are so great that having people there is not realistic, practical or even legal. Being environmentally neutral is another strong driver for mines to run automatically.

The networking solution for controlling mining machines remotely is traditionally based on unlicensed spectrum and often proprietary technology. For some applications, these are enough, but miners require more standardized and integrated solutions because adding more machines may require having to add network infrastructure. Connectivity for mobile vehicles and equipment must also be contiguous to ensure seamless handoff from one coverage area to the next. This necessitates appropriate network planning, especially if it is to remain cost-efficient.

Read more about what we’re doing to connect the Boliden mine.

Application 2: Production process improvement

Manufacturing and processing operations are regularly, and sometimes continuously, undergoing improvement or optimization during the lifecycle of the products being built. The more frequently the process improvement occurs, the more IoT sensors are required to support the operations. There also exists an increasing need for flexible and reconfigurable production lines.

Most industrial operations have been deployed for a long time, which requires new sensors to be retrofitted to work with legacy infrastructure and machinery. This can be accomplished with wireless communications. As wired solutions also are rigid and expensive to reconfigure, flexible manufacturing requirements also point to the use of wireless solutions instead of wired. What we see happening is the advent of Smart Wireless Manufacturing.

As can be seen by these two short examples, requirements and deployment settings can be very different. Generally, IIoT networks enable industrial machines and devices to be connected to enterprise information systems and business processes resulting in higher productivity. Tighter integrations of automation and information will move IIoT applications to more edge and cloud-based control services, which will put further demand on network support.

Read more about what we’re doing in Smart Wireless Manufacturing.

So, what is missing?

Industries currently lack a uniform framework that provides the right guidance as well as assistance in making the right selection of technologies and solutions when devising and building successful industrial IoT solutions based on best practices. These needs are addressed in a new whitepaper from The Industrial Internet Consortium in which we had a hand in writing.

The paper is titled ‘Industrial Networking Enabling IIoT Communication’ and is an introduction to industrial networking for IIoT system designers and network engineers. It provides an overview of the considerations that needs to be considered, and also paves the way for a forthcoming publication we are working on that will be a practical handbook for industrial network practitioners. So please stay tuned!

For more interesting facts and figures take a look at the Ericsson Mobility Report.

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