A Cookbook for Building Manufacturing IoT Environments

Building successful manufacturing IoT environments involves understanding the three layers of the environment, from the process layer, to the factory layer to the business layer.

March 29, 2021

6 Min Read
Industrial IoT projects require a solid infrastructure
Industry and technology concept. INDUSTRY 4.0Getty Images

By Tom Nolle

  • Building successful IoT environments involves considerate three layers:of a “cake,” so to speak process, factory and business layer.

  • IoT builders can identify the elements at these three layers that make up their IoT environments.

  • By identifying each layer and its elements, IoT architects can establish the IoT processes that forward their enterprises’ business goals.

The industrial sector has, for a century, worked to make the conversion of material or parts into products more efficient.

It’s no surprise that the manufacturing sector is a leader in IoT adoption, but many manufacturers still struggle with how to  introduce and use IoT in operations.

For those who do, here’s a simple recipe to build manufacturing IoT environments and to help you along the way.  In this discussion, we’ll use the term “sensor” for IoT devices that report a condition, “effector” for the class of IoT devices intended to move or open something, and “controller” for an IoT device that connects and interacts with sensors and effectors.

A High-Level View of IoT Environments

Companies have been striving for IoT and factory floor automation, and some have made significant progress.  The best approach in IIoT is one that divides your IoT project into three distinct layers, like a cake.

This structure enables manufacturers to match IoT devices to manufacturing processes, to knit those processes into a factory workflow, and to integrate that workflow with the business applications that acquire parts and raw materials and sell finished goods.

This three-layer approach enables IoT environment builders to put IoT processes into effect that reflect the goals of the business.

The Ingredients of an IIoT Project

Process layer. Unlike many IoT applications that build up from sensors that read conditions and “effectors” that move or change things in the real world, manufacturing IoT is usually built from specific processes, each consisting of the tooling needed to perform a manufacturing step, the workers needed to run it, and the IoT devices needed to wrap the process in an automated control envelope. These devices include a local controller, with its own device protocols and programming language, which converts IoT devices into active components of the process itself.  This process layer is the basis for manufacturing IoT design.

Factory edge layer. Manufacturing starts with processes, but all processes must be collected into a cohesive factory vision.  That’s the job of the second layer of the cake, the factory edge layer.  While the process layer is typically built from devices and specialty controllers, the factory edge layer is built from “embedded control” or “edge computing” devices that are increasingly likely to be some kind of general-purpose computing device.  This layer manages the processes so that factory work is passed along in an orderly way, and factory-floor safety of workers and machinery alike is assured.

Business layer. Goods don’t appear or disappear magically from a factory.  Manufacturers have software systems that support the delivery of parts/raw materials, often based on principles like just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing or JIT scheduling of deliveries to minimize inventory.  There are also systems that manage the inventory of finished goods and move them into a sales channel.  These systems form the business layer of the cake, the place where legacy applications meet IoT and process automation.

An IIoT Environment Recipe

Because the process layer is the foundation of IIoT, an optimum strategy starts there:

  • Take an inventory of the output application programming interfaces (APIs) from each of the process elements on the factory floor. Note the API, network requirements, data formats, and the type of information that is available through each.  If multiple options are supported, not the capabilities of each.

  • Verify that each process interface exposes a means of coordinating the start and completion steps of the process with a higher-level application. Also, identify the means of
    “emergency stopping” the process if necessary.

Now consider the relationship between the process layer and the factory edge layer.  You will need to establish a connection between each factory process in the process layer and an edge computer in the factory edge layer, so there will have to be a commonly supported interface for these connections.

  • For each candidate factory edge system, take inventory of all the supported APIs and network interfaces. There may be multiple operating system, middleware, or application packages for an edge device, so explore them all.

  • Find the match between the process-layer interfaces available and the factory edge systems. A suitable match will support all the message exchanges you need.  If there are multiple suitable matches, find a network/interface combination that fits the largest number of process-layer elements, to reduce the complexity of factory edge processing.

  • The best practice is to include a task to convert all the process-layer data streams in the factory edge application into a common data message structure before doing any processing. This will significantly reduce development and software maintenance effort, time, error rate.

Now to ice the cake.  The business layer of the manufacturing IoT cake is responsible for integration with the applications that handle parts, material, and finished products.  This is also the place where manufacturing IoT leaves the local factory environment, either to connect to the corporate data center or to a public cloud application.

  • In most cases, the interfaces available from the business side, available for the factory edge layer to connect with, are fairly static. Take an inventory of these interfaces and document their requirements and capabilities.

  • Inventory the interfaces that can be supported by the factory edge systems, and identify the smallest number of these interfaces that are suitable for connection to the business layer.

  • Be mindful of these connections’ security, since they expose interfaces to core business applications and databases.

Building IoT Environments Takes Some Finishing Touches

There are a few general rules in IIoT IoT that should be kept in mind when exploring options for all three of the layers of our IoT cake:

  • Many users prefer wireline connections, such as Ethernet, for both the process-to-factory-edge layer connections and the factory-edge-to-business layer connections. This improves security and reliability.  Use of shielded Ethernet cable may reduce the risk of electrical interference from machinery.

  • If wireless networking is used on the manufacturing floor, consider using separate hubs, keep the factory network separate from other uses of Wi-Fi. Consider Wi-Fi 6 mandatory for large-scale deployments or where other users will share the same Wi-Fi network, and use Wi-Fi 6 “color” features to mediate network capacity for critical IoT flows.  Be aware that to get the most from Wi-Fi 6, you’ll need WiFi-6 compatibility on the devices as well as the LAN.

  • Safety is the most critical concern. Be sure that the implementation includes emergency buttons to stop movement and protect workers and equipment.

Documenting Your IoT Environment

A key rule of thumb is to document everything.  Every decision made, every configuration parameter, every software element or device should be fully documented, with updates made with changes, and reviewed regularly to ensure nothing has been missed.  When you fail to clearly document devices, connections, applications, it can become a likely source of future problems, some of which can be serious.

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