For 40 years now, Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS) has built its process automation business on the core value of "continuous evolution," the company's pledge to provide its users with a path forward to the latest technology while preserving past investments in intellectual property. But what happens when continuous evolution runs headlong into disruptive technology such as that represented by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)?
According to the HPS experts convened for a panel discussion this week at Honeywell Users Group Americas in San Antonio, continuous evolution may be just what the process industries need to explore and digest the new possibilities afforded by the IIoT. "The IIoT is evolving itself," said Bruce Calder, HPS chief technology officer. "It's a matter of finding balance."
Indeed, the company's customers need time, and they need to find "the right way to deploy and prudent way to apply" these new technologies, added Paul McLaughlin, HPS chief development engineer.
In some ways, the easier connectivity, the smarter and more powerful devices, as well as the essentially unlimited storage and compute capabilities afforded by the cloud represent only the latest wave of disruptive innovation, comparable to the transition of distributed control systems (DCSs) to open systems technology in the 1990s. Continuous evolution helped Honeywell's customers over that technology hump too.
"Industry has to examine the use cases for IIoT," said McLaughlin. "Pipelines are different from refineries, which in turn are different from discrete factories. Users have to decide what is important and why they should consider sending data to the cloud. And those data flows can't perturb the core mission of the automation system."
Cloud-based applications will certainly play an increased role, the panelists agreed, but process industry users are looking for the flexibility to use an as-needed mix of on-premise solutions and private clouds too. "The IIoT typically represents a heterogeneous, multi-vendor environment," noted Andrew Duca, chief architect, advanced solutions, for HPS. "That's a big difference between IIoT and traditional distributed control system architecture," he said.
Meanwhile, the panelists agreed that the network protocols and integration standards such as OPC Unified Architecture that are indigenous to the plant floor will play an important role for some years to come. "One of the big questions is 'What will be the lingua franca of the IIoT?'" McLaughlin said. "We believe it will be OPC UA." Other IoT protocols such as DDS and MQTT will complement OPC UA at the gateway-to-cloud level, he added.
A key differentiator for Honeywell Process Solutions and what it can offer its customers is depth and breadth of domain expertise, including device connectivity, said Mike Brown, HPS process applications consultant. Indeed, Honeywell understands process industry applications and is well-positioned to build the analytics that will unlock the meaning hidden in all that new, big data that is on its way.
The Industrial Internet of Things offers significant opportunities, but holds challenges too. Honeywell Process Solutions, through its philosophy of continuous evolution, has a proven track record of helping its customers manage them both.