“In the U.S. alone, the industrial Internet could boost average incomes
by 25 to 40 percent over the next 20 years and lift growth
back to levels not seen since the late 1990s.”
Is it a wow moment yet?
Factories are going to need robust, secure wired and wireless networks to efficiently collect, route and share the real-time systems data with relevant machines, supply-chain partners, enterprise applications, workers, managers, executives and more.
That defines the Industrial Internet. It is often referred to as the Internet of Things, though the latter generally is used to describe non-manufacturing, machine-to-machine networking.
A great number of companies are involved in building the infrastructure for the Industrial Internet, which could match the impact that the Internet has had on the world’s economies. Indeed, GE expects the Industrial Internet to add $10 billion to $15 trillion to global GDP in efficiency gains alone over the next two decades.
General Electric, reportedly where the term Industrial Internet was coined, has been developing Industrial Internet software and applications for several years. It spent $1 billion to launch a global software center in California with a focus on machine-to-machine communications.
Network-device-maker Cisco is another pioneer in this area, having ridden the Internet bubble and survived the crash. Its core competencies transfer directly to Industrial Internet applications. It is out front in seeing the factory as the next domain for enterprise systems.
For example, it sells Industrial Ethernet 2000 (IE 2000) series switches specifically to link the factory to the rest of the business.
Other significant competitors are:
- Micron Technology (memory)
- Huawei Technologies Co. (networking hardware, software)
- Fujitsu Ltd. (various hardware, data analysis)
- Deloitte LLP (consulting)
- Echelon Corp. (software)
Cautionary word: security
A word of caution is warranted here. Ordinarily, one cannot talk about networking without discussing security, but it seems that that is not the case with the Industrial Internet, said Georgia Tech’s Henrik Christensen. Vendors “haven’t remotely started thinking about security,” he said. Safer long-term investments will have to include protection against digital attack.
The software inside advanced factories
Everyone has a dog in the fight to create secure and robust manufacturing applications. Most are working to make their code interoperable, and non-proprietary vendors view integration as a lucrative product offering.
Microsoft Corp., has as clear of a perspective here as any of its competitors. It locked up much of business computing decades ago, and has product tendrils in scores of industry niche. It sells an enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) package, Dynamics AX, specifically for manufacturing companies. Microsoft sells it as an application that helps executives increase efficiencies, resize operations and modify processes.
Though not a company that many associate with software, GE said in October 2014, that its 40-plus Industrial Internet products were expected to raise more than $1 billion in incremental revenue for the year.
Company executives say advanced-manufacturing applications deployed globally over the Industrial Internet can:
- Shave one percent of aviation’s fuel cost, saving $30 billion over five years
- Cut $5 billion a year if they are used by all rail companies
- Save $66 billion over 15 years at gas-fired power plants
Not coincidentally, GE is a dominant manufacturer in those industries.
GE markets a number of related software platforms including Predix for applications that monitor machine performance to improve efficiency and to predict failures. Executives in 2014 said they were going to open Predix so that other vendors can plug their applications into the platform.
Doing that could make Predix a de facto standard by swelling the number of products that work with it, dissuading Predix competitors or both.
GE has the resources to make a big impact in advanced-factory software. Predix was born at the GE Software Center, which employs 10,000 developers.
Siemens also has a sizable line of advanced-manufacturing applications. Its manufacturing execution system, for example, targets global component integration to wring out production inefficiencies.
Its COMOS application presents a holistic picture of plants, down to individual machines in order to manage assets.
Rethink Robotics’ operating system, Intera 3 works with the open-source Robot Operating System, which broadens the number of other robotics products that its systems can integrate with. Intera 3 has a graphical interface, displayed on the flat-screen of its Baxter and Sawyer lines.
The operating system also allows the machines to be programmed by physically moving their arms through a task. The company says programming this way is faster, and it is a certainty that doing so opens up the number of people in a company who can change robotics operations.
The software rub is integrating other critical applications: product lifecycle management, manufacturing execution systems, factory automation and enterprise resource planning.
Then there is third-party software that plugs into one (though rarely more than one) of these applications. Artificial intelligence, as it evolves, will complicate matters, too. The same mire was faced in the early days of desktop computing.
It will not be a very pretty process, but it will get done.
Integrating everything: Who’s doing what?
As anyone who lived through the early days of PCs and local-area networking will remember, integration is necessary and necessarily difficult. There are many, many players; hundreds of proprietary products, too few standards and billions of dollars wrapped up in integration. No one wants to abandon the protocols he paid to develop.
The Industrial Consortium, formed to work out the knots slowing integration, was formed by some of the largest technology, communication, hardware, software and security companies:
There are many, many smaller companies with integration products and/or services. Bremer Werk für Montagesysteme, for instance, assembled a large and complex flexible manufacturing line for Philips Electronics.
Though it is difficult to track smaller firms, industry publication Control Engineering ranked systems integrators this year by their self-reported integration-only revenue.
The top five are:
- M+W Automation, $150 million (since sold to ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc.)
- Wood Group Mustang, $125 million
- Larsen & Toubro, $92 million
- Maverick Technologies, $66 million
- Prime Controls L.P., $62.5 million
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