Connectivity & Interoperability (Part 1) – The Ultimate Enablers for Industry 4.0

Connectivity & Interoperability (Part 1) – The Ultimate Enablers for Industry 4.0

“It is time to re-imagine how life is organized on Earth. We’re accelerating into a future shaped less by countries than by connectivity. Mankind has a new maxim – Connectivity is destiny – and the most connected powers, and people, will win.”― Parag Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization

One hidden element underpins Industry 4.0 and the entire 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). Without it, very few of the recent and future transformative digital technologies we discuss would be possible. This emerging technological era has been dubbed ‘the information age’, ‘the data age,’ and the cyber-physical revolution, but an equally accurate description would be – The Age of Connectivity.

connectivity interoperability

Connectivity is at the Heart of Industry 4.0

Connectivity is at the heart of industry 4.0, enabling disruptive mobility by providing accurate real-time information and unprecedented freedom to many roles within the industrial and business landscape. Connectivity facilitates cloud computing, which is bringing the power of big data analytics and artificial intelligence to companies of all sizes.

Harnessing Connectivity

Harnessing connectivity is the key to developing automation, robotics, virtual and augmented reality, Blockchain, and almost all Industry 4.0 systems. Without connectivity, data would be a blessing and a burden suffered by the wealthiest companies, and only by increasing connectivity will we see the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) truly blossom.

However, connectivity is useless unless the machines communicating can understand one another. So, in our journey to Industry 4.0, the field of interoperability has come to the fore to facilitate the smooth exchange of information between various devices and systems, often made by a range of manufacturers. 

One of the good examples for addressing the criticality of connectivity is Singapore – a brilliant achiever in various endeavours.

“Our vision is for Singapore to have a thriving Digital Economy, where every business is a digital business, every worker is empowered by tech, and every citizen a connected citizen,” states the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in a May 2019 consultation paper. “World-class connectivity infrastructure will be essential to achieving these objectives,” the document continued.

The Singapore Government’s Smart Industry Readiness Index (SIRI) lists connectivity as one of its three technology pillars, the index stating that:

Connectivity — measures the state of interconnectedness between equipment, machines, and computer-based systems to enable communication and data exchange across assets. IoT-enabled devices are also increasing in both quality and quantity, generating enormous amounts of data as a result. 

Technological advancements in cloud computing and wireless infrastructure also make it possible for data to be centrally collected and managed. Likewise, systems that were once independent or isolated can now be integrated, unifying the various shop floor, facility, and enterprise systems through connected organisation-wide networks. 

Interoperability — the ability to access data with ease across assets and systems, is key to achieving this [connectivity]. Companies need to standardise or make use of complementary communication technologies and protocols to establish more open, inclusive, and transparent communications networks.

industry 4.0 connectivity

Creating Connectivity

Connectivity, in a digital sense, is defined by the Oxford dictionary as the “capacity for the interconnection of platforms, systems, and applications.” Connectivity, therefore, includes every machine to machine interaction be it via traditional telephone and Ethernet cables, Wi-Fi and cellular networks, or the latest industrial communication protocols.

The concept of connectivity in the context of 4IR, however, generally refers to it as the capacity for different nodes of a network to communicate with one another. More connectivity means more nodes and increased flow of data, which in turn leads to the greater intelligence of systems. Only by increasing connectivity can we hope to develop the fully automated factories, distributed renewable energy, cognitive buildings, and smart cities that have begun to define our future.

The primary role of connectivity in Industry 4.0 is to enable companies throughout the manufacturing supply chain to form networks and optimise individual steps in the supply chain. Various information and communications technologies enable creation of networks, which include entire manufacturing processes. Links connect warehousing systems, smart machines, human workers, and production operations, to bring about a wide range of enhanced processes and services.

Connectivity Today

Our quest for connectivity can be traced back long before the first telephone, to the mail and messenger services that preceded it. However, in this digital age of smartphones, the internet, and process automation, the forefront of connectivity in manufacturing today is a broad range of cellular and industrial network protocols. Each racing to develop the characteristics that will make it a leading connectivity platform for Industry 4.0.

Industrial protocols are the cornerstone of interoperability in the manufacturing facility, developed to interconnect the systems, interfaces, and instruments that make up an industrial control system — often deployed throughout broad network architecture, including business, plant, networks, or Fieldbus networks. Popular industrial network protocols include Ethernet/IP, Ethercat, Modbus, and IO Link, among others, each offering different characteristics to suit their application.

Ethernet, Ethernet/IP

Ethernet has long been seen as an ideal connectivity solution for industrial network communications due to being an open, proven, cost-effective, world-wide standard that’s easy to implement and use. The 100 to 1000 megabit per second data rates it supports are significantly higher than most existing industrial field buses. IP adds integration and data transparency on all networking levels, allowing a seamless flow of data from the factory floor to the back office for management and control.

Ethernet/IP, and other industrial network protocols, however, are not sufficient to support the complexities of Industry 4.0 networks. Even though standard Ethernet protocols define communications from the physical hardware layer to the communications application layer of a network, they do not include user application levels, such as data formatting to enable data exchange between equipment.

Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN)

SigFox and LoRa have long been the major players in the Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) space, each offering low cost, low energy consumption, broad coverage, and significant capacity. However, their bandwidth per object is very limited (100 bps), and the latency is high (1s), preventing their use in deployment of the real-time applications that symbolise Industry 4.0. The 868 MHz and 920 MHz wavelengths used also poses challenges indoors, meaning many manufacturing facilities have sought alternative connectivity solutions.

Cellular network

Cellular networks are by far the most widely used platforms digital connectivity today. 2G, or GSM (Global System for Mobile), began deployment in 1992 as the first all-digital cellular communication standard. Despite the subsequent emergence of 3G and 4G, the older 2G-GSM is the dominant global cellular standard today with 80% of the market share and close to 5 billion subscribers. Even as the IIoT emerges, 2G-GSM remains an effective way to facilitate some of the machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity that enables Industry 4.0.

Many IIoT applications require low-bandwidth, low latency, and low energy consumption, so 2G remains attractive due to its maturity. 2G is available widely and accessible by many devices, offering high-levels of integration and low cost of instalment. For applications that send infrequent and untimed data packets, such as automatic meter reading (AMR), signage, and some types of sensor data, 2G is just as capable as its successors but at a fraction of the cost.

The key challenges facing 2G are its increasingly limited range of applications, as Industry 4.0 increases bandwidth and latency demands, but also because it is being slowly phased out across the world due to the maturing of 3G and 4G / LTE technology. Singapore, for example, decommissioned its 2G network in 2017. While major global operators, such as AT&T, Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone, have gradually been shutting down their 2G services in some territories. It only a matter of time until the same trend takes shape in all ASEAN members.

3G is an evolution of the 2G-GSM communication standard, launched in 2000. 3G offered data transfer speeds of up to 14 Mbps (more using packet switching), four times faster than 2G. It provides greater clarity for video-streaming and real-time communication by using a Wide Band Wireless Network with a range of 2100MHz and has a bandwidth of 15-20MHz. 4G offered similar features to 3G but significantly enhanced it with better use of bandwidth and speeds of 10Mbps-1Gbps.

Mark Hung, an analyst at research firm Gartner, points out that “3G brought web browsing and data communication to mobile devices, 4G greatly enhanced it. And even though towers today can support hundreds or thousands of devices, 5G could help scale the Internet of Things from hundreds and thousands to hundreds of thousands.” 

5G And The Future

Considering that many, including tech-giant Cisco, predicting that the number of connected devices on the Internet could exceed 50 billion by 2020 – the deployment of 5G cannot come soon enough. 

To continue reading on the this article about Connectivity & Interoperability Part 2- 5G and Industry 4.0, please click here.

Written by Colin Koh, Senior Business Development Manager, Industry 4.0 Consultant. This Industry 4.0 Article Series is aimed to enlightened readers about everything they need to know about Industry 4.0 and its application about technologies and benefits to companies and consumers.

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