Navigating industrial IoT risk and complexity

Features - Technologies

Stricter requirements, infrastructure integration, and open-standard platforms will be needed to build the complex systems to create truly smart factories.

October 9, 2015
Eric Starkloff

Many of us are already familiar with the Internet of Things (IoT) concept – it’s the idea that just about any “thing” from man to machine has the ability to connect, network, and provide intelligence. The IoT includes consumer technology such as smart homes, phones, and mobile fitness devices to industrial systems – smart cities, factories, and power grids.

Within the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), connecting industrial objects enables automated real-time business insights, efficiencies, and innovation. However, as innovation rapidly grows, so does the complexity, which makes the IIoT a challenge that no company alone can meet. This challenge becomes even more daunting and complex when comparing the requirements of the industrial Internet to those of the consumer Internet.

Both involve connecting devices and systems all across the globe, but the IIoT adds stricter requirements to its local networks for latency, determinism, adaptability, and bandwidth. When dealing with precision machines that can fail if timing is off by a millisecond, adhering to strict requirements becomes pivotal to the health and safety of machine operators, machines and businesses. While consumer IoT applications are bringing many new devices online, IIoT applications will need to integrate with prolific amounts of brownfield infrastructure that must support existing devices and applications alongside new ones.

Ultimately, a common hardware and software platform built on open standards will enable IIoT systems to remain adaptable to fast changing needs throughout long life cycles, overcoming key IIoT challenges.


Factory of the Future

Consider Airbus as an example of a business using a platform-based approach to navigate IIoT complexity. The manufacturing and assembly of an aircraft involves tens of thousands of steps that must be followed by operators, and a single mistake in the process could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix, making the margin for error very small. So the aircraft manufacturer is developing smart tools for the first aerospace factory of the future.

By building intelligence into its shop floor systems and adding robotic machines that can work and interact side-by-side with humans, Airbus’ production process is becoming more efficient, ultimately bringing planes and aerospace equipment to market faster.

These smart tools have intelligence from vast amounts of analog data from the physical world including light, radio frequency signals, vibrations, and temperatures. This insight enables a smarter, operator-centric production that allows operators and robots to collaborate in the same physical environment. For example, an Airbus operator looking at a bolt that needs to be fastened can wear smart, augmented glasses to identify the required bolt and where it’s located on the factory floor. That information is then sent down to the robot so it now knows the setting to torque the bolt exactly to the specification. All these actions are coordinated so a robot can assist the human operator in the assembly of the aircraft without the risk of injury.

Airbus is using a hardware and software platform that is essentially the brain inside its industrial systems and connects them. It’s using standard protocols and the Internet to connect to other devices and to build more complex systems based on the inner working of those networks and the data that comes from them.


As massive networks of systems come online, they will need to communicate with each other and with the enterprise, often over vast distances. Both the systems and the communications need to be secure or millions of dollars in assets will be put at risk. One example of the need for security is on the smart utility grid, which is on the leading edge of the IIoT. As information on the grid becomes more accessible, so does the damage a security breach can inflict.


As more capabilities are added, software updates will be needed or more systems must be added. Soon a tangled web of interconnected components starts to form. These new systems and functionalities have to integrate not only with the original system but also with all of the other systems. This challenge becomes even more complex when it becomes necessary to modify and update thousands or millions of systems located all over the world, including some in remote locations.


IIoT connectivity will have to integrate with over a century’s worth of legacy infrastructure. Within the IIoT, it’s important to standardize on an Ethernet-based protocol that is capable of incorporating evolving standards to create an open, deterministic network. Organizations such as the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the AVnu Alliance are working to define these standards for the IIoT. Without universal standards, the things in the IIoT won’t be able to communicate to others, especially things from different manufacturers, thus creating inefficiencies.

Ultimately, it’s important for companies to build their IIoT systems on an open, integrated hardware and software platform that can scale with new technologies. This will enable the implementation of IIoT systems that are adaptive, scalable, secure, and continually modified and maintained.


National Instruments


About the author: As Executive Vice President at National Instruments, Eric Starkloff leads worldwide sales and marketing organizations. Starkloff invests his time in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in his community, serving on the advisory board for the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech.