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Blog: Making machine and plant data accessible

To get the most out of machines and systems that are equipped with digital services, getting field-level access to the machine and process data is essential. Hilscher’s comprehensive IoT ecosystem addresses this crucial challenge, as Uwe Schnepf, Head of Product Management for Industrial IoT at Hilscher, explains in an interview with the editor-in-chief of Digital Factory Journal.

Text: Ronald Heinze

European manufacturers of machines and systems are under immense pressure to solve some serious challenges. A shortage of skilled workers is limiting their ability to take advantage of potential in innovation and services, while strong competition from Asia is putting pressure on sales and market share. In light of these challenges, they’re planning to interconnect their machines and systems in order to increase production efficiency, improve customer service, develop intelligent products and establish data-driven business models.

To implement digital services, machine manufacturers need access to machine and process data. They also require special software tools that can be used independently of the production control system to configure and analyze the collected data, and for maintenance purposes. U. Schnepf emphasizes the importance of edge management, including edge gateways, their integration into the operational level via fieldbus or Industrial Ethernet, management and operation of edge gateways and the software and the specific business applications running on them.

Open and scalable IoT ecosystem

Hilscher makes machines and systems network capable, offering a modular solution based on an open, scalable and centralized edge management platform. Their scalable IoT ecosystem includes an extensive range of edge gateways, central device and fleet management solutions, as well as application management via private and public cloud infrastructures. Users can also use container-based applications for connecting to the manufacturing floor and to the cloud, and they can also use their own, application-specific containers in the system. For example, users can take advantage of the netFIELD PROFINET Tap App and EtherCAT Tap App, which allow PROFINET or EtherCAT data traffic to be read purely passively without modifying the controllers in these networks. “Solutions are already available for the most important communication systems, and others will follow,” adds the Hilscher manager.

U. Schnepf underscores that Hilscher actually manufactures and sells chips and modules for automation. “Over the past seven years, we have increased our focus on edge computing and combined it with our expertise in industrial communications to lay the foundation for new data-driven services and business models,” said U. Schnepf. He adds that Hilscher offers its customers a comprehensive IoT ecosystem. This industry-proven platform can grow with your needs and does not require a large investment; users typically start with a single gateway and a free netFIELD account for testing.

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“Analyzing and processing data on machines is becoming increasingly complex,” continues the IoT expert. He believes it is no longer enough to simply collect data; today, data pre-processing at the edge is essential. Edge gateways are the solution; they can collect and pre-process the data directly at the machine. Equipped with a hardened and secure Linux operating system, these edge devices are smarter than typical gateways, enabling, for example, remote access to user interfaces and apps, as well as the collection and analysis of machine data for configuration, commissioning, diagnostics, and other IoT applications. They make it possible to operate machines and systems that would otherwise require skilled operators, of which there is an increasing shortage.

Professional edge management

In the modern industrial environment, edge management is becoming increasingly important. A large number of edge gateways and their software that are used in machines and production systems need to be centrally managed. Not only the devices and their operating systems, but also the operator’s own applications need to be continually updated and kept compliant with the latest security standards. Hilscher’s netfield.io platform, which is based on Azure IoT but which can also be operated in conjunction with other cloud platforms, e.g., directly in the user’s network, acts as a central hub. “With this service, users can easily manage their fieldbus devices and applications remotely from anywhere in the world,” explains U. Schnepf, emphasizing that netFIELD can of course be used to implement cloud solutions via the Internet, but that local implementations can also be realized with netFIELD.

An operating system is also required for the devices to communicate with the edge management platform netfield.io. Hilscher’s netFIELD OS, which is based on a hardened Linux, is provided. This operating system will also soon be open to third-party devices. “This will allow users to flexibly choose whichever hardware they want to operate on our platform. If some initial development steps have already been taken with your own devices, this is no longer a concern and costs are reduced when switching to netFIELD.io. “Of course, the hope is that this will lead to an even wider user base of our solutions,” says U. Schnepf.

 

A structural graphic of the different components of Hilscher's netFIELD solution.

Remote management and monitoring of edge devices and the central rollout of updates, for example, are made possible through containerized software via the user account. With an increasing number of edge gateways, this can become quite complex rather quickly. A professional edge management system helps users keep track of the gateways and the software running on them by centrally managing software and configurations. “This is called fleet management,” adds the Hilscher manager. “This can also be implemented as a server solution on the customer’s premises, not just via a public cloud. Firmware updates and software rollouts can be carried out specifically for certain device groups, which can be defined statically or dynamically.”

Digital services for machines and production plants

With its gateways and the netFIELD cloud, Hilscher aims to make machines smarter and more efficient, and provides the complete infrastructure needed to do so. “We leave the data analysis to our customers, who understand their own data better than we do,” adds U. Schnepf. A good example of this is the packaging machine manufacturer MULTIVAC, which has developed digital tools that have now been rolled out and are running on Hilscher gateways worldwide. This enables transparent processes and real-time data, which go a long way in making MULTIVAC systems more efficient.

Remote access also offers advantages during commissioning. “During the Corona pandemic, virtual commissioning proved to be valuable,” says U. Schnepf. At that time, it was often the case that machines could be delivered but not commissioned and therefore not billed because on-site access was not possible or skilled workers were not available. Many machine manufacturers are also considering offering Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). “Digital services help to optimize machine operation, which is particularly important when there is a shortage of skilled workers,” adds the manager.

According to U. Schnepf, another Hilscher customer and leading provider of thermal spraying technology offers its customers Smart Services as an add-on product to the machines. This increases their efficiency, boosts throughput and contributes to greater sustainability and transparency. The solution is based on netFIELD as the IIoT infrastructure. “Our Edge Gateways are installed in every machine ex works and activated as required,” says U. Schnepf.
In addition to machine manufacturers, Hilscher also offers its services to plant operators in order to combine data from different machines and operate plants more efficiently. “This also applies to older systems that are retrofitted,” adds the Head of Product Management IoT. The IoT solutions are also of interest to software manufacturers, for example, who are exploring ways to incorporate artificial intelligence into machines.

 

netFIELD in action at leading packaging machine manufacturer MULTIVAC
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A connected machine must always give the customer more advantages than a machine that is offline. Thanks to Hilscher’s netFIELD technology, we can provide highly efficient Smart Services that directly address customers’ needs while increasing customer loyalty at the same time.

Dr. Marius Grathwohl

Vice President Digital Products & Transformation

MULTIVAC

In times of climate change, how can food and other products be processed in a more resource-friendly manner? MULTIVAC‘s answer: by investing in research, development and modern production.

Between 2010 and 2020 the MULTIVAC Group filed 445 patent applications, which were used to create synchronized, network-integrated, software-supported, and energy-efficient machines within automated processing lines. For high-precision slicing, accurate portioning to the gram, safe and sustainable packaging, labeling and quality assurance. For a green future.

A packaging machine from MULTIVAC.

集成包装解决方案的领先制造商 MULTIVAC 利用 netFIELD 开发以客户为导向的服务,提高机器可用性

Making use of best practices

“We see ourselves as an enabler that supports SMEs in particular in using best practices,” says U. Schnepf. The container-based structure of netFIELD enables users to easily integrate and roll out their apps via the gateways. The Hattersheim-based company has also collaborated with selected partners, such as UReason from Rotterdam, Netherlands to develop a solution for valve and pump monitoring, as well as with Tomorrow Things GmbH from Bonn for a solution to monitor injection molding machine processes and with byteFabrik from Karlsruhe for an AI low-code solution.

Hilscher enables servitization, a business model innovation that combines both goods and services. One example of this is “Tires as a Service” offered by a tire manufacturer. “Such business models are also possible in manufacturing, and we help companies obtain the necessary data,” explains U. Schnepf.

In conclusion, U. Schnepf also emphasizes the importance of OT security. Regulations such as the EU Cyber Resilience Act impose stringent requirements, which will also determine CE approval. He is convinced of the success of Hilscher’s solutions, which focus primarily on industrial communication and secure device management. “We offer an open-standards platform that is designed to solve real SME customer needs, while also being scalable to quickly and easily adapt to the evolving market landscape,” he concludes.

 

The picture shows the inside of an industrial production machine for semiconductors and electronic devices. On the left side, a type of gripper arm can be seen between blurry constructional struts in the foreground.
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About the author: Ronald Heinze

Ronald Heinze is well-known in the automation industry as one of the best networked and informed editors. He is the Publishing Director and Editor in Chief at VDE VERLAG GMBH, a German media company for professional magazines such as Digital Factory Journal or etz.

Get in touch with him on LinkedIn

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The Digital Factory Journal portal reports on Industry 4.0, IIoT and IoT in its entirety with a high level of journalistic expertise. It highlights the entire value chain in manufacturing companies - from design & planning, automation, manufacturing and industrial communication to cloud solutions & industrial security.

Hilscher netPI Edge Gateway in use.

我们的管理型工业物联网平台概述:netFIELD 是您实施工业 4.0 解决方案的 IIoT 边缘基础设施。它使您能够访问机器数据,并集中管理必要的软件和硬件。