Adding Intelligence to IIoT in Factories and Utilities

Author

Robert Vamosi, Contributor

March 17, 2015

Wearing a pair of technology-augmented glasses an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) assembly line worker stands before an incomplete section of an AirBus 380 aircraft frame, contemplating the correct bolt. Beside the worker are rows of networked robots. Once a bolt has been selected, the robots and not the worker will then drill them into place. There are about 400, 000 bolts on a standard aircraft so what could have taken hundreds of man hours may soon take only a few hundred thanks in part to new technology from National Instruments.

“What AirBus is doing is classic Industrial Internet of Things … what they call Factory of the Future,” said Eric Starkloff, EVP of Global Sales and Marketing at National Instruments. Interviewed in advance of his panel at SXSW, he told Forbes that aircraft today is still built with a lot of human assemblers, not like a car which is mostly built by robots. “There are some robots, but the challenge [AirBus wants] to overcome is to have robotic systems work collaboratively with humans.”

Starkloff said that robots are not sensitive to their environments so they can injure a human standing alongside. “Usually you have a robot assembly line and you don’t have humans anywhere near it because a robot could, literally, accidentally kill a person and not know it,” he said. “But an intelligent robot could be much more aware of their counterparts.”

In the AirBus demonstration, the human’s augmented glasses identifies and compares the bolt to images stored in the Cloud. That information is then sent down to the robot so it now knows the setting to torque that bolt exactly to the specification. “All these things are coordinated so a robot can work beside them and assist the human operator. Obviously there are safety critical checks they have to make so all of that information also gets logged to a database.”

There are about a thousand different tools necessary to assemble an aircraft, Starkloff said. And those tools can all connect wirelessly to the Cloud. “[National Instruments] built a hardware and software platform that is the brain that goes inside those industrial systems, and connects them. [It] uses 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.”

Starkloff’s company manufactures the hardware and software used for programmable silicon field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) under the brand name RIO which stands for Reconfigurable IO. For many of these Industrial Internet of Things systems the real-time computation FPGA performance is unmatched, he said. “It allows folks to do things that need to happen very fast or are mission critical so they want it running directly on silicon instead of an operating system which can introduce some error.”

Products such as National Instruments’ compactRIO and its sister software LabVIEW “are essentially putting more intelligence into industrial machines to assess their health and predict maintenance and failures.” Starkloff said that real-time information is particularly useful for some of the largest power companies in the world. “The example of the power plant is a positive impact of $100s of millions for each operator that we work with in terms of the ability to prevent power failures, catastrophic explosions, and things that happen in these systems.”

Utility companies need more intelligence built into their grids, Starkloff said, in part to handle abrupt changes with new types of alternative energy. “With wind energy for example, sometimes it’s producing a lot and sometimes it’s not.” With the fickle nature of both solar and wind power, the grid itself has to be more intelligent in how to respond to energy sources that frequently come on and off the grid.

Starkloff cited one utility, National Grid, in the UK, that has deployed his company’s tools to manage the intelligence of the grid. The result is there are now hundreds of smart nodes that make real time decisions about how and where to distribute power to maximize their efficiency. “What people are seeking is a standardize way to build that intelligence into those systems and to internetwork them,” he said.

In addition to working with IIoT, National Instruments also tests smartphones, smart watches, and other consumer devices. “The convergence of technology that we see in all these consumer devices creates a lot of challenges,” Starkloff said, noting that more and more capability is being added to devices through software. The example he gave was when the FAA allowed mobile phones to be turned on in flight required that an airplane mode be added to some phones. In most cases it was a function of software, not hardware. “That creates a new expectation of how quickly those changes can happen and be rolled into a device that doesn’t impact the testing of those devices,” Starkloff said.

Starkloff said the cost of wireless technology has been driven down so much that vendors can today add a Bluetooth or WiFi radio to any consumer device for very little incremental cost. Ironically, wireless is actually the most expensive thing to test on those devices, he said. “So there’s been a real challenge in scaling down the cost of verifying and testing those to make sure they interoperate.”

This article was written by Robert Vamosi from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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