When things, people, machines, robots, and systems are interconnected, the potential for improving productivity is enormous. Photo: Colourbox

The Internet of Things—and machines: Linking machines to machines

Robot technology and automation Computer calculations Data analysis IT systems Production and management Construction and mechanics
Linking industrial machinery, robots, and systems together holds considerable potential. However, it also requires a high level of security to avoid both breakdowns and break-ins.

The ‘Internet of Things’ has been a hot topic for a long time. The concept basically describes the phenomenon whereby more and more things are interconnected via the internet. It is happening while technologies such as sensors, GPS systems, and antennas are being integrated in products such as mobile phones, clothes, cars, thermostats, and burglar alarms. The technologies collect data that we can access via the internet, and enable us to control, for example, the temperature in our holiday home using our mobile phone.

However, at the heart of Industry 4.0 is the ‘Industrial Internet of Things’. Here, it is not only products, people, and technology that are being interconnected, but also robots, machines, and systems, which are connected to each other out in the companies.

Professor Paul Pop heads a new research centre for the Internet of Things (IoT) at DTU. He is also responsible for the centre’s work with Industrial IoT, and explains how it can help businesses increase productivity:

“Businesses can optimize processes which perhaps they had no idea could be optimized. It might be something as simple as discovering when a particular machine is available. When machines are interconnected and exchange data, it can also be used to detect defects or changes in production at an early stage, and before any damage is caused. Big data and machine learning can also be used to predict when a machine needs new spare parts, to reduce the risk of machine stoppages,” says Paul Pop.

There is a broad consensus that the Industrial Internet of Things holds huge potential. According to General Electric, the phenomenon can increase global GDP by USD 15 billion over the next 20 years. 

The pace of development is accelerating rapidly. In 2011, 13 billion devices globally were connected to the internet, while it is estimated that this number will have grown to 50 billion by 2020.

Requires reliable technology

The more we connect to the internet, the higher the security requirements as regards breakdowns and break-ins. An internet connection obviously increases the degree of vulnerability to cyberattacks. Therefore, security is paramount if Industrial IoT is to be fully exploited, and it is a high-priority research area in DTU’s new IoT centre.

In addition, the technologies must be highly reliable, so that transferring data between two machines or robots takes place in absolute real time. In an industrial context, it is futile if there is a slightly weak internet connection, as the processes at many companies are extremely time-critical, and any errors or delays in the communication between the machines can have serious consequences.

“Systems must be able to react very quickly if, for example, an unexpected change occurs somewhere in production. If the systems are unable to correct themselves in real time, the company risks losing production with a consequent loss of profit. In extreme cases, certain businesses risk major incidents occurring such as explosions, meltdowns, or leakages that would cause serious pollution,” says Paul Pop.

From the cloud to the fog

To ensure the highest level of security while maintaining the highest possible communication speed between the machines, it is important that communication and data are not exchanged via cloud-based systems. Instead, there is talk of bringing ‘the cloud’ down to earth—and when clouds are at ground level, it is, as we know, foggy. Therefore, we call this new technological development ‘fog computing’. In other circles, it has been dubbed ‘real-time edge computing’, says Paul Pop. With fog computing, the communication between the machines takes place locally within the company.

“It’s not the same as having local servers on the premises, as they are far too slow and unstable. A server can break down, and it can be hacked. Companies need a technology which is more specialized and reliable. At the moment, we have fieldbuses, which are the hardware that provide another kind of network for connecting a company’s machines. With fog computing, companies have the opportunity to exploit digitization without compromising security, reliability and speed,” says Paul Pop.