Disrupting technologies like IoT, AI, or Edge Computing have come to enhance SCADAs and PLCs. Proper co-existence and integration of product, human and processes, between OT and IT, will be the key for the industrial sector to jump on board with the fourth industrial revolution.
Until the first half of the 20th century, industrial organisations relied primarily on humans to control and monitor their processes. However, with increasingly complex operations and ever larger factories, in the 1970s digital PLCs (programmable logic controllers) and computers became popular as an interface for data transmission to remote control centres. Soon after, “telemetry” was born, from the Greek “metria” (measurement) and “tele” (remote), and with it, a control system called Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Systems (SCADA). This was the third industrial revolution and today, no industrial company does not use PLCs or SCADAs in its operation.
The Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are now making another great technological leap that many dare to call the fourth industrial revolution.
The scope goes far beyond “data acquisition and monitoring” and focuses on advanced processing of large volumes of data for faster and more efficient decision-making processes, with less risk and margin for error. However, we are still in the process of consolidating this new revolution, as the boundaries between the investment made in the third industrial revolution and the one needed for the fourth are not yet clear.
In this article we set out 3 waypoints on the roadmap that must be met by any company not wishing to be left out of the fourth industrial revolution.
First, the elephant in the room: SCADAs are not prepared for advanced processing of large amounts of data, in the same way that IoT platforms are not set up for centralised real-time process monitoring and automation. As a result these two technologies are forced to coexist.
The centralised control process of a SCADA can only take place using databases that ensure reliability and a fast response to queries, i.e. generally centralised databases, with structured query languages (SQL) and the financial cost linked to the “number of variables”. However, these architectures are too rigid for the processing of large volumes of distributed and changing data.
IoT Platforms rely on distributed databases, with unstructured languages (NoSQL) and cost per “used resources” (CPU, Memory). IoT platforms are the best suited for creating mathematical models that require advanced AI queries, but there are not optimal for highly reliable real-time processing.
When we look at visualisation and user interface functionalities, the aim of a SCADA platform is to model complete processes in a way that makes it simple and easy for an operator to control the process without errors, and so, HMI (Human Machine Interface) graphics generation frameworks are optimal.
In the case of an IoT Platform, whose objective is to illustrate large volumes of historical data, cross-references, or future trends, a dashboard web-like visualisation framework is more suitable.
It seems highly unlikely that in the near future there will be one platform that can combine the reliability and speed of a traditional SCADA, with the flexibility and scalability of an IoT Platform. Both systems will have to coexist and integrate, for which the correct budget allocation and the coordination of OT and IT departments is critical. David Purón- CEO Barbara IoT
Similarly to what happens in control rooms near the assets “in the field”, there are also systems that must enhance the existing ones. Automated controllers or PLCs, are devices whose main function is to digitise and automate the production process and their real time requirements are even more restrictive than in a SCADA. A millisecond error can mean the failure of a robotic arm or an electrical substation not coordinating its relays properly, resulting in a major overall system failure. The aim of PLC is to focus on function and it would not be a good idea to programme it to perform actions other than those related to the production process.
So, returning to the previous examples, it does not make sense for the PLC that controls the robotic arm or the substation relays to be checking other variables that are needed, making more global decisions such as the environmental conditions of the plant or the presence or otherwise of staff in a location. Moreover, it does not make sense to use PLCs to obtain these additional data for AI, since they usually require very specific programming expertise.
Where real time is not a requirement, but the flexibility to acquire data and to treat it in an efficient and scalable way is necessary, the IoT Edge Nodes is the best alternative. These Edge Nodes are mini-computers with high-level language programming (i.e. Python, C/C++, or with the capacity to store Docker containers), a large number of inputs and outputs as well as combined connection interfaces (e.g. industrial buses with cellular connectivity).
Safety refers to being protected against events that can cause injury. Safety standards, risk management or disaster response plans are on the daily agenda of any industrial organisation, in many cases enforced by law.
With IoT and AI, we are moving into the cyber-physical world, where industrial networks (or OT networks) are becoming less isolated and more interconnected. They are therefore more vulnerable to both external and internal cyber attacks that can affect not only the safety of workers, but the continuity of the company´s operations.
Traditional risk management, incident response plans and safety certifications must be complemented by their counterparts in the world of cybersecurity.
The standards that seem likely to become de facto in this regard are ISO 27001 for information security management, and IEC 62443 for IT security of networks and systems in industrial communications. It is important to implement and manage elements such as IoT Platforms and Edge Nodes under the umbrella of good practices, and industry standards such as those above to ensure the future of this new technology roadmap.
New technologies, such as IoT, AI, or Edge Computing, have not come to replace SCADAs or PLCs, but to enhance them. Good coexistence and integration of product, humans and processes across IT and OT, as well as a wide technological openness, is the response for industrial organisations wanting to join the fourth industrial revolution.
If you found this article of interest, please do contact us for further information on how we can help you deploy IoT projects securely.