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The gathering winds of connectivity and digitization are making big waves in industrial manufacturing. Numerous associations and organizations are working to navigate these changes and harness their transformative potential. Dr. Richard Soley, executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), and Sebastian Sachse, open automation technology manager at B&R, discuss the role of development testbeds and whether the IIC stands in competition with initiatives such as Industry 4.0.

Dr. Soley, the IIC is getting more and more attention around the globe. Can you start with a quick introduction to what your organization does?

Dr. Richard Soley: The IIC is a global, member-supported organization where companies are joining forces to solve the challenges presented by the Internet of Things. In working groups, the members define how to develop and promote the technologies that will be needed to implement the Internet of Things. Although we are not a standards organization ourselves, we work with dozens of standards organizations worldwide. Our membership is approaching 300 companies – among them IT companies, manufacturers, research institutions, universities, microprocessor makers and automation companies like B&R – a very heterogeneous mix.

Sebastian Sachse: That diversity is a great illustration of what industrial IoT is all about: the interplay between automation – or operational technology as it's often known in this context – and information technology.

The IIC has to contend with other initiatives, such as the Industry 4.0 movement that dominates German-speaking Europe. What sets you apart?

Soley: I don't see the situation as one of rivalry. Quite the opposite in fact – we've been working more and more closely with other initiatives, including not only Industry 4.0 but also initiatives in China, Japan, Russia and India. And the number of signed relationships is growing all the time.

Sachse: From our perspective, what the IIC is doing dovetails nicely with Industry 4.0, because the two are working on different levels. Industry 4.0 operates at a very abstract level and is centered around industrial manufacturing. The IIC, on the other hand, is concerned with the nuts and bolts of reference architectures and testbeds. These are two critical – and complementary – aspects, which is why B&R is actively involved in both organizations.

What is being done in these testbeds?

Soley: Let's take a step back: before we initiate a testbed, we first lay out a reference architecture. This architecture dictates general things like how to get data from the plant to the cloud. Then our members implement that in a testbed, where components from different manufacturers – typically prototypes – are brought together to create a concrete solution that mirrors the reference structure. Based on this concept, the IIC by now has a broad variety of frameworks that help to solve the challenges of IoT and give different viewpoints on the topic. Whereas the security and connectivity framework are still quite technical topics, the business strategy and innovation framework take a different viewpoint. The testbeds help to collect requirements for new standards, as well as best practices for integrating IoT into many industrial settings - including healthcare, finance, energy, mining, manufacturing & production, and more. 

Sachse: These testbeds are incredibly valuable to us. Before we're even done developing a new product, we're able to see whether it's going to work as planned in its future environment. And the testbeds come very close to the real-world applications we find on site at our customers. Especially with regard to IoT applications, these collaborations yield powerful insights that translate into added value for our customers. They bring IoT out of the realm of abstract theory and turn it into hands-on applications.

Doesn't that mean that you're revealing know-how to the competition?

Soley: Of course it does. And, until a few years ago, that would have been simply unthinkable. But the IoT is shaking things up to a point that many companies are reevaluating that mindset. One thing is clear: the market demands open standards and a uniform protocol landscape. That's the only way you can set up and manage these increasingly large networks efficiently.

Sachse: Whether you call it Industry 4.0, IIoT or Smart Factory – the advanced manufacturing systems we envision for the future will only be possible if all the components in a production line are able to communicate over a uniform network. It's this realization that now has competitors sitting at the same table, specifying the necessary technical framework. Of course, these manufacturers will continue to have their differences – but they will be speaking the same language. OPC UA TSN has established itself as the uniform market standard. In the future, customer benefit will be measured in terms of knowledge distilled from data, so that's where more and more of the innovations in automation technology will be coming from.

Can you describe how a testbed works in more detail?

Soley: At the moment we've got 26 testbeds working on things from medical technology to transportation and logistics. For industrial manufacturing, though, it's probably the TSN testbed that is the most interesting. TSN – which stands for time-sensitive networking – is an extension of the IEEE 802.1 Ethernet standard to include various real-time functions. The standard is nearing the end of the specification phase, but throughout the process, member companies have already been testing the compatibility of pilot implementations on a shared experimental setup. Since OPC UA has established itself as one of the market standards for Industrial IoT communication, we've incorporated it in the testbed along with others like DDS and MQTT That ensures that the first OPC UA TSN enabled products will have already been tested in a simulated industrial environment.

Has testing yielded any results yet?

Sachse: The results so far have been extremely promising. Together with many of our testbed partners and other well-known automation and IT companies, we announced at the 2016 SPS IPC Drives that we'll be offering products with OPC UA TSN. B&R controllers with OPC UA TSN will be available in 2017. The speed with which this technology has moved from drawing board to market is a perfect example of the dramatic acceleration of innovation cycles you hear about so often in conjunction with the IIoT.

Soley: It's also a perfect example of the IIC fulfilling its mission to the letter. We brought together a diverse group of companies, supported the establishment of new standards and shortened the time it took to get new technology from concept to production.

Sebastian Sachse is B&R's open automation technology manager
Richard Soley is the executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC)

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