Georgo Angelis and Tycho Sonnemans of Eindhoven University of Technology's High Tech Systems Center are building up a consortium of industrial partners and knowledge institutions to deal with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). They talk to Mechatronics & Mechanical Engineering about the related challenges, solutions and plans.
‘Smart thermostats and lights are already available on the consumer market and, in e-commerce, artificial intelligence and the IoT already influence consumer's buying behavior. However,’ according to Georgo Angelis, Fellow at the High Tech Systems Center (HTSC), 'much progress remains to be made in terms of smart and networked machines in the high-tech sector. The urgency is nevertheless evident; every self-respecting company has a digital agenda.’Many organizations are already running initial pilots but, Angelis believes, it's time to step up a gear. ‘We may only be in early stages at the moment but the boom is fast approaching. We are on the threshold of new ecosystems in which machines will be interconnected and which will turn familiar, traditional relationships upside-down’, he says. ‘That's creating new business opportunities for companies that are able to respond quickly.’
Switching to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) nevertheless poses significant technical and organizational challenges. ‘To start with, you must ensure that your systems are equipped with sensors or that you really make use of the data you already collect by making it available in the cloud’, Angelis explains. ‘It’s then important to establish a link between those data and your key performance indicators so that you know where and how they can be used. This will enable you to develop a smart service, to improve production efficiency, for example, or be better able to predict maintenance requirements.’
The HTSC receives many questions from the industry about process optimization. ‘How can I use all the data available to improve my process? There are so many possible controls to be operated that they lose sight of the bigger picture. We can help them in that respect’, Angelis says. HTSC program manager Tycho Sonnemans adds: ‘Once you know that, the next step is to intervene in the production process. However, the relevant preconditions are often not met, for instance because machines from different suppliers can’t communicate with each other, so you can't yet optimize the system.
That's no easy puzzle to solve. To keep a good grip on your operational management, you also need to think carefully about who you allow to access all that data. You want to understand what a maintenance supplier does with the information you provide and how you can best organize that.' Sonnemans continues: ‘We are moving from linear chains towards dynamic networks, where components go back and forth between suppliers and can follow different routes. Service providers play an increasingly prominent role in all this. How will that affect power relations in the market? That is very uncertain and stressful. Sharing data will enable you to organize your processes more effectively, to reduce your production costs or otherwise generate added value, but how should you distribute the resulting revenues? And what will your new role be within the network? Won't you suddenly become superfluous?’
IIoT will also have an impact on processes at company premises. ‘If you monitor everything, you will know when your staff take a break and who works most efficiently,’ Sonnemans explains. ‘That can be perceived as a threat, as a result of which technologies are sometimes used incorrectly or even sabotaged. At the TU/e, we have researchers who monitor human-machine interactions and the impact of introducing new technologies to the workplace.’
Stress of choosing
The HTSC is seeing a proliferation of communication protocols. ‘We always manage to connect two machines eventually, but integrating, testing and managing the connection always proves quite a task’, Sonnemans points out. ‘That aspect is becoming increasingly complex, as more and more technologies are becoming available and organizations, especially in the Netherlands, are too small to set a market standard themselves. This kind of standard is essential, though, to get Smart Industry off the ground.’
The proliferation makes choosing decidedly tricky, Sonnemans believes. ‘You can seldom avoid combining several technologies but how should you construct the stack? Innovation cycles develop very rapidly. Solutions can change completely within a year or two. How can you ensure you always choose the best option? The limiting factor is not technology itself; it is technological stability. Businesses should make a collective choice.’ ‘We often look to our eastern neighbors, who have Industry 4.0 high on their agenda’, says Angelis. ‘The automotive industry in Germany is enormous but it's a whole different ball game to our high-tech sector. So it’s not very wise to simply copy everything unquestioningly; it’s highly likely that we need a different standard here. We at the university are at the center of this exploration phase.’ ‘The difficulty being that you look for all kinds of standards at varying levels, from data exchange to mechanics and middleware’, Sonnemans adds. ‘Ultimately, you want it to be appropriate across the board. Either that or you'd have to unlink everything in a smart way and that’s a complex challenge. It is an obstacle we have to overcome together.’
All the major players in the region are already involved in IIoT. Angelis lists some examples: ‘Philips, NXP, Nexperia, ASML, Thermo Fisher’. ‘Many of them are at a similar stage, facing similar challenges. Some of the same pre-competitive issues are being solved individually.’ He feels this is a shame because companies consequently often waste time and effort reinventing the wheel. ‘Obviously we discuss things, but that we could do that in a far more constructive and coordinated way. ’The HTSC is therefore setting up a consortium to bring stakeholders together in fundamental and practice-oriented research. While Angelis and Sonnemans are in serious negotiation with several parties, they feel it is too early to divulge any names. The plan is to start with around ten participants, with different roles in the chain. Other participants besides TU/e include TNO and Fontys. Angelis: ‘This ensures a strong link with the industry for both the short and longer terms.’ The consortium is in no way restricted to those ten starters. ‘It should be a self-sustaining collaboration’, Angelis explains. ‘There is definitely room for more parties to join, especially SMEs.’