It's really too bad that the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) includes the word "Internet." For process industry practitioners tasked with keeping industrial processes running safely and securely, the word sometimes conjures images of process-critical systems connected directly to the public cloud—and the cyber nightmares that come with such scenarios.
"Every day we hear of another high profile hack," notes Scott Saunders, president and CEO of Moore Industries-International, a specialist in process instrumentation interface solutions. For the process industries, cyber security is a critical and growing concern, Saunders says. "It's not like a home automation system where cyber concerns are real but limited. Plants can have 'kaboom' situations that threaten entire communities."
An intranet of things
The process industries, in particular, embarked on their own IIoT journey to realize the power of networked digital systems long before the advent of the consumer and commercial Internet. Today, increasingly capable networked devices and sensors, together with powerful software applications, continue a slow but inexorable transformation of process operations begun decades ago.
Some progressive industrial enterprises already have begun to realize the IIoT's promise of data-driven decision-making to optimize processes and predictive diagnostics. And, more often than not, they rely on a robust, reliable and secure infrastructure of communication technologies developed over the years to meet the specific needs of process automation, notably the HART protocol, Foundation fieldbus and FDI—all of which are now managed on behalf of industry by the FieldComm Group.
Despite rapidly advancing network technology and growing attention to the IIoT's promise, the needs of the process industries continue to resist the application of commercial networking technologies at the field level, notes Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer, Emerson Process Management. "While Ethernet has reached further down the automation hierarchy in discrete manufacturing applications, issues such as distance, intrinsic safety and loop power have limited our ability to use off-the-shelf network technologies," Zornio says.
"More sophisticated devices such as gas chromatographs and Coriolis flowmeters have started to go to Ethernet connectivity," continues Zornio. "But if you need intrinsic safety and it's a relatively simple pressure or temperature transmitter, an IP [Internet protocol] network connection will add some complexity and likely some cost."
Ethernet technology all the way to the field instrument level is seen by some as an inevitable next step. But for others, the business and use case for developing a new physical layer "just for us" isn't at all clear. "We're talking about putting a lot of effort into new wired protocols when the world is increasingly going wireless," Zornio adds, "and if we want battery-powered devices, the power and data efficiencies of IP protocols really come into play."
Cyber security is a persistent concern, as is the ability of technicians to cope with IP-addressable field devices. "If we can make what we already have easier to use and to integrate into IP networks, do we really need new physical layer protocols?" Zornio asks.
Indeed, industrial facilities that have built a communications foundation based on FieldComm Group technologies already are in a position to leverage the power of this secure "intranet" of process automation things in order to gain many of the promised benefits of the IIoT—without incurring the IIoT's perceived security risks. "It's an industrial intranet of things in the sense that it's firewalled and sometimes physically segregated from the outside world," says Moore Industries' Saunders.
Data and protocols already here
Modern process automation systems, for example, now include built-in multiplexers for seamlessly extracting digital HART information from analog transmitter signals. Leveraging these capabilities, together with full digital Foundation fieldbus and WirelessHART networks, industrial facilities have never been better equipped to extract from their field assets a wealth of digital information related to instrument and equipment health as well as safety and energy efficiency performance.
Ted Masters, president and CEO, FieldComm Group, believes that the process industries can draw inspiration from the IIoT's momentum to capture the value of the digital information that's already available in the millions of smart instruments installed worldwide. The vast majority of those smarts are used only during calibration and commissioning, Masters notes. "Now is the time to go get that digital data and use it to improve process performance.
"The value of digital data accessed through various hosts and systems is exciting, and is transforming our everyday lives. Nearly all devices are becoming connected and accessed for various types of new use cases. But as the IIoT becomes more complicated, users will have many more requirements to keep their plants safe and mission-critical processes reliable. The protocols of FieldComm Group understand the critical needs of process automation users and build robust standards around these special requirements."
Easier integration is next frontier
As the FieldComm Group's protocols have demonstrated their utility and robustness through billions of instrument hours, the primary goals of the organization have shifted from advancing the protocols themselves to making it easier for users to integrate and extract value from their installed base.
"One thing we've recognized, with the FDI effort in particular, is that it's not so much the protocols but the integration of data that is meaningful—and most difficult," says Emerson's Zornio. Early on, integration issues were exacerbated by multiple host implementations that often didn't interoperate in a multi-vendor environment. Users also have had to use multiple data formatting and presentation standards such as EDDL and DTM. "We learned that if it's not easily integratable, it's no good," Zornio says.
FDI set a new bar for cooperation and communication among industry standards organizations. "Now, the FieldComm Group is acknowledging that these other standards exist and is working with them to provide value for end users," Zornio says.
Meanwhile, the FieldComm Group's organizational structure, notably its strategic technology committee and working groups, provide for the continued development of new technologies, notes FieldComm Group's Masters. "We now have a home for those collaborative efforts, a model for continuing to bring technologies forward. We want people to feel safe about coming together here, to work together to advance the practice of process automation."