Aligning for interoperability

International dialogue advances smart, IIoT-driven manufacturing goals.

By Stephen Mellor, Industrial Internet Consortium

A piece by Richard Soley in Plant Services’ January 2016 issue (“Embracing the industrial internet”) may have piqued your interest in the industrial internet, even if it didn’t cause you immediately to embrace it. But the industrial internet is gaining ground, and it’s advancing rapidly.

We already have (partially) self-driving cars, battery technology that can be used to store electricity coming from variable sources (wind, solar), remote health care, and dark factories. These are individually bringing benefits to manufacturers and consumers, but the big wins will come from connecting the various vertical market segments in ways we cannot imagine today. Remember, when Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the URL in the late 1980s, he had no idea the kinds of applications that would be available 30 years later, from booking airline tickets online to holding webinars with hundreds of people to researching the industrial internet (about 16.8 million results in 0.64 seconds from across the globe, according to one search engine). All he wanted to do was share documents across two sites in a single lab!

Nor is that revolution over. These applications, and the ways in which they connect, are disrupting the economy. Uber is changing the taxi market; Airbnb is disrupting hotels; and automobiles can be picked up in urban locations and rented for a couple of hours, beginning a move from cars as cost centers to cars as assets. The industrial internet will accelerate these trends, and we’re only a few years into the innovation that will occur over several decades.

But what if your brand-new connected car couldn’t talk to the infrastructure in another city? Or if it didn’t communicate with your smart home? Or if its batteries couldn’t be connected to the grid overnight? None of the benefits would accrue.

We need interoperability. All of these devices and components must be able to talk to each other. For this reason, among others, the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) published its Industrial Internet Reference Architecture in 2015 (see Figure 1). The IIRA document lays out the functional components needed in a typical industrial internet of things (IIoT) system. Each box in the diagram houses relevant standards that can be used to assemble a system quickly. It is also a guide to identify missing standards.

Yet a search for “industrial internet” quickly shows that there are multiple consortia, architectures, national initiatives and standards working independently toward varying goals. Prominent among these is Industrie 4.0, referring to a German strategic initiative to establish the country’s prominence indelivering advanced manufacturing solutions.

Reference Architecture Model Industrie 4.0 (RAMI 4.0) is the reference architecture for Industrie 4.0. It has three dimensions showing the functional layers (similar to IIRA’s functional decomposition, again see Figure 1), lifecycle and value stream, and hierarchy levels. It is specialized for manufacturing and addresses many issues specific to that vertical market segment. It is rightly prominent worldwide in that market segment.

But conflict sells copy. Over the past two years, rumors, speculation, predictions, and outright fictions have been published about the supposed conflict between these two organizations and their work. The impression was given that the IIC is a U.S. organization (in fact, it has always been international in scope and currently counts members from 30 countries) and that developers must choose between the two approaches.

To be candid, the technical experts couldn’t gainsay this narrative. We didn’t know! So a few of us got together in Zürich (neutral ground) late last year to investigate. It was clear from the beginning that there is lot of commonality in the two functional decompositions. But there were differences. RAMI 4.0, for example, places a lot of emphasis on the hierarchical composition of components; the IIRA does not. The IIRA, on the other hand, identifies a set of cross-cutting concerns (such as security – that must be in place everywhere in a system), while RAMI doesn’t. We agreed that all of these ideas had value in different systems and we could align those areas that were clearly close.

We could also identify areas that were different and where to use them. For example, hierarchical composition of components may have value at the edge of smart grids – substations, windmills, tidal barriers – but perhaps not in health care. We can use the expertise of both organizations to extend our joint reach. We can rely on Industrie 4.0’s expertise in manufacturing while spreading some ideas into other vertical market segments.

Accordingly, the boards of both organizations met with this technical information in hand and decided to cooperate, jointly announcing this in Berlin in March this year. We then convened a joint meeting in Chicago in May to establish how we will work together. We now have six joint task groups exploring immediate plans for the next six months and deliverables for within 18 months – all leading to outcomes in three years. Of the greatest importance is the demonstration of interoperability between components built using different architectures.

We do not intend to build a single reference architecture. Experience shows that usually leads to yet another! Rather, we intend to enable and encourage interoperability. There are half-a-dozen standards for power sockets, and you can buy a converter for $15 ($35 in an airport). This enables interoperability between devices and power sockets.

The Industrial Internet Consortium intends to align with experts in multiple vertical market segments (e.g., energy, health care, manufacturing, the public domain, and transporation) to benefit from the expertise in each and spread knowledge across them so as to provide interoperability. We also intend to work with other national initiatives, such as:

  • China: Internet+ and China 2025
  • Japan: IoT Acceleration Consortium, Robot Revolution Initiative, Industrial Value-Chain Initiative
  • Germany: Platform Industrie 4.0
  • France: Alliance Industrie du Futur
  • European Commission: Alliance for Internet of Things Innovation
  • United States: Cyber Physical Systems Public Working Group

By aligning these initiatives, we enable interoperability and accelerate the development of the industrial internet over the next several decades.