The Internet of Things (IoT) is a relatively new phenomenon. Prof Dr Thomas Pospiech, a teacher of Production and Process Management at Heilbronn University of Applied Sciences, was interviewed recently about the ‘IoT box’ he’s developed to give his students a practical illustration of this fairly abstract concept.
The professor was asked to develop a lecture series about Industry 4.0 for people without specific expertise in automation technology. He decided to look at the meaning of Industry 4.0 and its role at the university; to focus on IoT and bus systems in industry practice; and to illustrate what it all means. His aim was to bring every electrical ‘thing’ (even a light bulb) into the Internet, and to pack many components together into a small space.
For these components to illustrate the IoT in a portable box, Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA) was essential. So, he looked for a manufacturer with a programmable logic controller (PLC) that would function with OPC UA. He needed to convey to someone in just 15 minutes which parameters had to be set up. It then had to work.
Elements of the IoT box
Professor Pospiech opted for an Omron controller, as we were the only company in the programme with a controller that supported both OPC UA and MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport – a messaging protocol that’s vital for communicating between the industrial components and the other ‘things’).
Current production machines are so flexible and deliver such a high performance that a single controller isn’t sufficient. Multiple CPUs that can communicate with each other are needed, along with OPC UA. This also allows networking with higher-level systems and connectivity at the field level to SAP (or a cloud). The various controllers can also be interlinked.
Unlike OPC UA, MQTT can transfer data or information rapidly to somewhere else without a great protocol overhead. A powerful CPU isn’t needed where the message is created: it can, for example, be battery-backed. The data can simply be sent using the mobile network.
Another component of the box is Amazon’s Alexa. This makes it easier for students to understand the complexity of IoT. Alexa is used to explain how data is generated; how it finds its way from the sensor to the cloud; and what can be done with it. For example, a temperature sensor can be linked to Omron’s controller. Using MQTT, the current temperature value is sent to the cloud every second and the data becomes available in Excel or a database.
Industry 4.0 also involves marrying automation technology and information technology. Firstly, Omron’s CPU must have access to the data. However, for Alexa to interpret the data, different programming languages and completely different background knowledge are needed. By programming Alexa to take data either from the cloud or directly from the Omron controller via MQTT, the professor can introduce the students to both worlds.
A developing situation
In the PLC market, almost every year has seen providers increasing the performance of their controllers. This also increases the possibilities of realising very complex functionalities and applications. The issue now is that the development environment (the automation engineer’s tool) needs to reproduce these complex functionalities transparently and as simply as possible to enable an efficient and economic implementation.
Omron is one of the pioneers of integrating advanced functions such as MQTT. Our Sysmac Studio development environment is very intuitive, and enables the professor to run the functions fairly easily. He commented that this isn’t the case with many other companies, as they don’t spend the time or money needed to understand how to operate the development environment of the controller system. If he wants to explain an automation technology issue to students during a lecture, Omron’s system allows him to do this quickly and easily.
Developing the IoT box
Another item in the IoT box is the Raspberry Pi. The professor believes in ‘learning by doing’, including hands-on work with the keyboard. To provide students with the best possible opportunity for this, he has brought together existing programmes, libraries and self-programmed ‘things’ into one image. This gives students the same working basis at home as they have during a lecture, by using the Raspberry Pi, which is effectively a fully-functional private cloud.
The IoT box is still fairly new. After one lecture, eight students approached the professor and asked him if they could look at the topic in greater depth privately. This resulted in a working group which still meets fortnightly to exchange ideas, build small modules etc. With the IoT box, the students can see immediately how something works, including the entire workflow and each of the steps involved.