Transforming wired industrial sensors into IoT devices

The Industrial IoT (IIoT) is the foundation of Industry 4.0. By sending sensor data to the cloud and using it to feed machine learning algorithms, manufacturers can detect process problems immediately, rather than at later stages when rework and field failures are much more expensive.

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Transforming wired industrial sensors into IoT devices

The Industrial IoT (IIoT) is the foundation of Industry 4.0. By sending sensor data to the cloud and using it to feed machine learning algorithms, manufacturers can detect process problems immediately, rather than at later stages when rework and field failures are much more expensive.

"Industry 4.0" is transforming factories through computing and automation. According to technology giant IBM, digital technologies are driving self-optimization of process improvements and levels of efficiencies and responsiveness not previously seen in the industrial sector.

So, it's perhaps no surprise that factory managers are rushing to implement Industry 4.0 principles. But the problem many faces is their facilities are equipped with wired sensor networks, which, although reliable, cost-effective, and secure, lack the capability to connect to the IIoT easily.

From wired to wireless

Now there's a solution; State College, PA-based TZero's MachineMailbox is an IIoT gateway—based on Nordic's nRF9160 low power System-in-Package (SiP) cellular IoT solution—that brings Cloud connectivity to wired sensor networks. The gateway connects to external sensors via a wired full-duplex RS485 data port. RS485 has a large installed footprint in industrial systems because it is balanced, inherently noise immune, and robust over long cable lengths.

MachineMailbox brings connectivity to critical systems where a large legacy installed equipment base represents a significant capital investment. Furthermore, it brings connectivity to locations where network access is challenging - such as manufacturing equipment, robotics, or chemical plant monitoring. The proprietary gateway solution connects IIoT systems to the cloud through LTE-M or NB-IoT cellular networks.

TZero selected cellular IoT over other wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi because the industrial service must provide highly reliable wireless connectivity. Moreover, the company says cellular networking can deliver connectivity solutions out of the box, that are secure and easy to deploy.

In addition to providing the LTE-M/NB-IoT connectivity for MachineMailbox, the nRF9160 SiP's 64MHz Arm Cortex-M33 processor with 1MB Flash and 256kB RAM analyses and processes the raw sensor data to determine what needs forwarding to the cloud. This helps keep power consumption low, enhances security, and reduces data costs.

An accurate picture

By combining cellular connectivity and Cloud computing, TZero's IIoT gateway solution provides a quick and accurate picture of what's happening during an industrial process. In a brewery environment, for example, where timing and control are crucial, yet measurements are traditionally made manually, MachineMailbox can be deployed to automate fermentation monitoring. Data from a wired sensor network can then be aggregated and processed by TZero's gateway and sent to the cloud. Feedback from a Cloud server helps the brewer refine the process for the perfect end-product.

MachineMailbox can be added to an industrial network as a 'sink' to which sensors feed data, or it can query any attached peripheral. Once connected, the gateway can, for example, be configured as a Modbus device, exposing a large range of holding registers that an external controller can read from or write to. The contents of the registers can then be synchronized to a Cloud server. Once in the cloud, applications can access the registers allowing remote visibility. Through such a system, any programmable logic controller (PLC) or industrial controller can achieve Cloud connectivity virtually using familiar protocols or data models.

MachineMailbox transforms any product into a connected IIoT sensor/machine-based solution with "zero configuration," says TZero. This functionality not only helps industrial customers with process optimization but also equipment diagnostics and predictive maintenance.

Manufacturing companies with legacy wired factory systems don't have to wait for an expensive plant upgrade to enjoy the benefits of Industry 4.0. Instead, with the help of products like MachineMailbox, they can quickly and relatively inexpensively transform their assembly operations by connecting the factory floor to the cloud and leveraging the power of machine learning.


This article was first published on Nordic's Get Connected Blog.

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