Virtual Trade Show and Conference

This week I am attending the Festo Virtual Trade Show and Conference . The website provider is the same one as the Danish company I “toured” last week. It is similar to a concept I saw 20 years ago, but modern technology and design have made the experience very good.

I sat in a couple of conference sessions deepening my understanding of the latest in pneumatics and digitization. The discussion of digitizing and motion was good showing examples from OEE and energy savings. I am not a fan of OEE, but many companies seem fixated on it. It is a number–but I learned how the sausage was made 30 years ago and I remain unconvinced of its real utility. However, if you can digitize to calculate OEE, then you have data you could use in better ways for decision making.

I also learned about applications in process and water treatment.

The metaphor is a trade show lobby with doors for the auditorium for conference sessions, the show floor, information booth. Entering the show floor, there are a number of icons representing booths. Click on a booth and you can choose from short video demonstrations, downloadable papers, and product overviews.

You can attend yet today. It’s worth a look to see what perhaps may be a chunk of the future. I miss the energy and serendipity of live events. But this is an efficient way to collect information saving both the exhibitor and me great expense.

The Cobot “Virtual” Expo

Organizations and companies have been exploring how to do a virtual trade show for more than 20 years. I can remember the early efforts…and shudder. However, we now have a “witch’s brew” of pandemic, increasing bandwidth, improved interactive graphics, browser advances such as HTML 5 and more which have coalesced into a good user experience. If they could replicate the hallway conversations and chance meetings, perhaps some travel could be eliminated. But I still prefer being there.

Yesterday robot industry veteran Joe Campbell, who is now sr. manager of applications development with Universal Robots, gave me a tour of the UR Cobot Expo. It is officially concluded, but you can still visit everything except for the chat functions for the next 30 days. And the expo is pretty cool. Pandemic restrictions have forced creativity upon marketers and designers, and most of the events I have attended have been well worth the time. Certainly this one is if you have any interest in exploring this technology area at all.

“The Cobot Expo” offers American manufacturers flexible automation solutions with a rich experience with an extensive range of product news and demonstrations, featuring more than 30 different booths, insightful keynotes, interactive QAs, and live chats with automation experts (these latter are not active now).

As I’ve written before, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that resilient businesses—those that can emerge with plans for growth—can react quickly and decisively to protect workers while keeping business running, adapting processes and product lines, with many manufacturers now increasingly using collaborative robots to make those changes efficiently and cost-effectively.

“The crisis has accelerated the need for flexible automation,” says Campbell. “We’re seeing an uptick in interest for collaborative robots due to social distancing requirements, reshoring to avoid long supply chains, and the need for rapid production line change-overs. The Cobot Expo is a timely opportunity to showcase and discuss how cobots can play a pivotal role in helping manufacturers successfully navigate the pandemic.”

The Cobot Expo is free to attend and is open for anyone with an interest in collaborative robotics (on demand only now). Attendees are invited to visit booths that feature new insights and resources on the most common cobot applications such as machine tending, packaging and palletizing, product inspection, assembly, welding, dispensing, and finishing. Joining this lineup is ActiNav, the world’s first autonomous bin picking kit for machine tending launched by Universal Robots this spring.

For expo visitors wondering how to get started with collaborative robots, numerous keynotes with live QAs will offer insights on critical topics such as how to identify good projects, choosing the right cobot model and peripherals, conducting risk assessment, whether to take a DIY approach or go with an integrator, and much more. The agenda also has presentations on cobot maintenance and programming and the many new ways cobots are quickly being deployed to address the COVID-19 crisis, including area disinfection, the manufacturing of test kits, face shields and ventilators, and in the handling of COVID-19 tests, protecting hospital staff from exposure.

The Cobot Expo is also an opportunity to meet the many UR+ partners presenting the industry’s largest and most comprehensive ecosystem of new products certified to integrate seamlessly with the UR cobots. The rapidly expanding UR+ platform now includes over 250 UR+ components and application kits with more than 400 approved commercial developer companies in the UR+ program.

The UR+ partner booths include: ATI Industrial Automation, Energid, Flexibowl, Flexxbotics, Hexagon, Mircopsi/Nvidia, New Scale Robotics, OnRobot, Piab, Robotiq, Schmalz, Schunk, SMC, Vectis, Vention, VersaBuilt, Visumatic, Wiretank, and Zimmer.

Alongside the UR+ partners will be booths hosted by Association for Advancing Automation (A3) and OEM partners showcasing products powered by UR cobots. The OEM partners include: Columbia Okura/Rocketfarm, Computech, Hirebotics, IRIS, Melton Machine, ONExia, and ProCobots/Easy Robotics.

“With tradeshows and conferences cancelled, we are experiencing phenomenal interest from all industry stakeholders in participating in the Cobot Expo,” says Campbell. “This truly is an extraordinary opportunity for an extraordinary time.”

Add Real-time Networks to the Smallest PC-based Devices

Compute platforms are achieving incredible power in very small form factors. I’ve been contemplating where we could go with industrial applications built on Raspberry Pi. Then I saw this note from Hilscher. This is the world where that company plays. Here is a complete industrial communications application on the new M.2 format for PCI Express that adds real-time communications to PC-based systems.

In just a few minutes, you can connect PC-based devices, such IPCs, HMIs and robotics, to Real-Time Ethernet and Fieldbus networks. The comprehensive package has all necessary hardware and software components, including protocol stacks, device drivers and network connectors. The M.2 card can be simply installed in new and existing devices to connect with industrial automation networks on the fly.

PCI Express M.2, briefly named M.2, is smaller than the Mini PCI Express format and was designed for very thin computing platforms like notebooks and tablets. Since its introduction, automation manufacturers of PC-based systems, such as Industrial PCs, vision systems, robotics, and human machine interfaces (HMIs), have integrated M.2 sockets into their devices for one simple reason. The tiny M.2 format allows many add-in functions to be included into their systems in very tight spaces. Now, with this Hilscher offering, M.2 cards can provide real-time automation network connectivity.

M.2 formats come in various widths, lengths, and socket keys. For this first M.2 card release, Hilscher is using the A+E key socket arrangement, as that is the PCI Express specification’s generic form factor for connectivity add-ins, such as WiFi and Bluetooth. The M.2 2230 Key A+E card, with Hilscher product name CIFX M223090AE, is part of Hilscher’s cifX family of PC Cards. cifX PC Cards are intended for easy integration of a network interface and fast time-to-market of the manufacturers’ products and features.

At the heart of the M.2 2230 card is Hilscher’s netX 90 multiprotocol communication chip. M.2 card users can choose among loadable firmware for PROFINET IO-Device, EtherNet/IP Adapter, EtherCAT Slave and OpenModbus/TCP. Available in Q4 2020 is firmware for CC-Link IE Field Basic and Ethernet POWERLINK Slave. The appropriate network connector is included with delivery. There are adapters available from third-party vendors for other key formats, if required by the application. Additional firmware options, more card and key formats, and OPC UA and MQTT functionality will be released in the future.

Other benefits of the netX 90 ASIC include its small size, low power draw, reduced heat waste and extended temperature range. These features make CIFX M223090AE the smallest multiprotocol card in the market, at 22 mm X 30 mm, and allow it to operate in conditions from -20 deg C to +70 deg C. With its low power consumption, the M.2 2230 is ideal for energy saving applications.

Choosing the Hilscher M.2 card allows users to future-proof their designs. Hilscher continuously provides new firmware for Real-Time Ethernet, traditional Fieldbus and IIoT protocols. Besides a wide range of industrial protocols, Hilscher also provides device drivers for all major operating systems used in the industrial environment, including Windows, Linux, INtime, RTX, and QNX, as well as a C Toolkit for custom device drivers.

Modular OT Cybersecurity Solution

It’s fascinating to watch PAS Global over the years build on its incumbent technology and expand into new areas of market needs. A few years ago the company made a substantial investment in people and technology development entering the cybersecurity market. By building upon its roots in process control and automation, I think has better viability than security-only startups that seemingly are always heading for acquisition.

PAS Global announced Cyber Integrity now includes in-product expansion to support industrial organizations as they mature their operational technology (OT) cybersecurity capabilities. The cyber risk for critical infrastructure and process industries is greater than ever as digitalization projects and remote work requirements have expanded the attack surface. Industrial organizations are focusing more on addressing cyber risk but are at different stages of maturity. New modular licensing and deployment options in Cyber Integrity version 7.0 provide flexibility to address specific needs as sites advance their OT cybersecurity maturity:

  •  provides discovery and topology mapping of industrial control system environments down to Level 0 devices with unmatched depth and accuracy without passive network detection limitations and active network polling risks.
  •  includes inventory management and enables the identification of vulnerabilities hidden in industrial infrastructure, leveraging and enhancing regular feeds from the United States National Vulnerability Database (NVD).
  •  includes inventory and vulnerability & patch management as well as in-depth Level 3 to Level 0 OT asset configuration management with comprehensive cybersecurity configuration baselining, unauthorized configuration change detection, workflow-driven vulnerability remediation and incident response, risk analytics, compliance workflows and reporting, and backup and recovery support.

“PAS is introducing a breakthrough solution for industrial organizations to improve OT cybersecurity no matter their current state of maturity across sites,” said Eddie Habibi, CEO and Founder of PAS. “Whether a site is working to build their security foundation with an accurate and detailed OT asset inventory, ready for vulnerability assessment and patch management, or looking to establish a mature enterprise program, PAS Cyber Integrity has them covered. This modular capability is increasingly needed as digitalization and the accelerating shift to remote work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic expand the industrial cyber-attack surface.” 

“When evaluating cybersecurity technologies, we looked for a solution that could expand as our needs developed,” said Jamal Al-Balushi, Control & Automation Team Lead at Petroleum Development Oman. “Initially, our focus was to automate OT asset inventory, assess vulnerabilities, and prioritize our remediation efforts. This was part of a longer-term strategy to develop a mature enterprise OT cybersecurity program with back up & recovery and compliance reporting across sites. PAS Cyber Integrity meets our needs for today and will expand with us as we enhance our cybersecurity program in the future.”

As part of the announcement, PAS also unveiled a new OT Inventory Assessment Service. This service delivers an analysis of a site’s current OT inventory, identifies gaps with industry best practices, and documents the business value of having a more detailed inventory in place. The service is offered at no charge to qualified organizations.

“With seamless, in-product expansion, PAS is making it easy for industrial organizations to address their immediate OT cybersecurity needs and incrementally unlock new functionality as their sites and programs mature,” Habibi added. “Our assessment service helps OT teams understand the gaps which exist in their current asset inventory and strategies to close those gaps. The combination is a game changer for improving OT cybersecurity in critical infrastructure and process industries.”

Sparkplug: Open Source Technology to Bridge the OT-IT Gap

Many engineers are looking for better ways to move data with fewer programming hours and headaches. Whereas OPC solved many problems leading to interoperability and data exchange, it also brings with it a higher overhead and programming load. For those searching for a something lighter, and also open source, along comes Sparkplug.

Cirrus Link authored the Sparkplug specification and provided it to the Eclipse Foundation, and several other companies support the group as founding members including Chevron, Canary Labs, HiveMQ, Inductive Automation, and ORing. Now additional companies are developing their products using Sparkplug for interoperability.

I recently received a paper authored by Arlen Nipper, president and CTO of Cirrus Link “Sparkplug: Open Source Technology to Bridge the OT-IT Gap”. He begins:

One of the primary pain points in Industrial IoT (IIoT) is disparate systems with both modern and legacy assets. Companies in any industry ranging from oil and gas to manufacturing can hardly imagine a world where they can choose any vendor’s hardware, plug it into their network, and have the hardware 100 percent self-discovered by their SCADA system and every application in the enterprise. True vendor interoperability for both data producers and data consumers is the vision, and new open-source technology may be the answer.

These days, everything relates back to digital transformation. Nipper write, Digital transformation requires devices in the field to be connected, with data made available that can speak the language of both OT and IT for improved business intelligence. In order for this type of digital transformation to be successful, data must be decoupled from a single application so it can flow to enterprise applications in a one-to-many approach.

From the first time I met Nipper, he has evangelized MQTT—a protocol he helped write—as an IT-friendly messaging protocol. It is lightweight. It is a publish-subscribe network protocol allowing for multiple data consumers.

MQTT is a messaging protocol. It does not describe the data traversing the wire (or air). While it provides an excellent engine for delivering IIoT data, MQTT doesn’t make the data interoperable across the enterprise. Thus, a new open source standard has been created and the IIoT industry should understand its importance for bridging the gap from OT to IT.

Nipper explains the next step:

The Internet expanded rapidly thanks to two open technologies – first HTTP, a data exchange protocol, and then HTML, which was used to define the data sent by HTTP. Both were needed. MQTT has needed its “HTML” for years in order for IIoT to explode in growth and adoption. In order to solve this problem of OT-IT interoperability, the Eclipse Sparkplug working group was launched in February 2020 to bring device communications standardization to IIoT.

The Eclipse Foundation states, “The Sparkplug Working Group was established to ‘improve the interoperability and scalability of IIoT solutions, and provide an overall framework for supporting Industry 4.0 for oil and gas, energy, manufacturing, smart cities, and other related industries.’ ”

Sparkplug is an open source software specification that provides MQTT clients with a framework to integrate data. The specification articulates three goals:

1. Define an MQTT Topic Namespace optimized for IIoT.

2. Define MQTT State Management to take advantage of continuous session awareness.

3. Define the MQTT Payload.

Sparkplug adds features including birth certificate and death certificate (session awareness) to help with contextualization of data.

Sparkplug makes this process fast, secure, and open standard so anyone can make use of the framework for MQTT interoperability. Many device manufacturers are supporting Sparkplug, which means it is built in natively on the device on the OT floor.

Nipper concludes:

With Sparkplug, machine learning and artificial intelligence applications can utilize the same standard interface for data without having to know and understand the entire OT environment. They can subscribe to the OT data, and use it immediately for IT functions.

Open Edge Software Platform for ‘Time-Critical’ IoT Systems

In brief: Edge XRT Provides Low Latency, Predictable Real-time Processing Capabilities, Suitable for High Performance IoT Edge Applications.

There are many incumbents with cash-cow platforms who are becoming ever more vulnerable. Whenever a market has experienced consolidation and incumbent products have become cash cows, then the market is ripe for disruption from a totally different direction.

For the sake of innovation and advancement of the state-of-the-art, I hope that today’s younger engineers and those coming into the field in the next few years are not shy about exploring open source and standards and new ways of approaching problems. I’m not predicting that this new product from IOTech will solve all the world’s problems, but this is a very interesting step into the future.

The news: IOTech announced general availability of Edge XRT, a software platform for time-critical and resource-constrained applications at the IoT Edge. It is integrated into IOTech’s implementation of the open source EdgeX Foundry.

Edge XRT greatly simplifies the development of time-critical IoT systems at the Edge and enables application portability, improved supportability and faster time-to-market for new IoT edge applications. XRT runs on commodity hardware, independent of silicon provider and operating system and has complete deployment flexibility, it can be deployed as a native application, containerized and/or into a virtualized environment.

Edge XRT is targeted at IoT applications with a need one or all of the following characteristics – small memory footprint (as low as 100KB); ultra-low latency (from < 100 microseconds); predictable real-time data processing. Written entirely in C, Edge XRT is also extremely portable and can support legacy “brownfield” systems based older hardware, operating systems and development environments.

Edge XRT is designed for high performance edge computing use cases such as industrial control and real-time signal processing applications across different vertical markets including factory automation, oil and gas, utilities, smart energy and renewables. It also enables integration between the real-time edge control systems and higher-level SCADA applications.

With its small memory footprint and efficient use of computing resources, Edge XRT also makes it suitable for microcontroller based IoT applications including instrumentation and equipment monitoring, automobile engine management systems, medical devices, home automation and consumer electronics.

Edge XRT can be deployed independently or as a Real-Time extension to any general purpose Edge Platform. For example, Edge XRT has been fully integrated with IOTech’s Edge Xpert, an industrial grade implementation of EdgeX Foundry the market leading open source edge platform.

The product suite positions the company to support the full spectrum of secure software and hard real-time IoT edge computing needs.

“The availability Edge XRT is the exciting result of over two years of intense development and close collaboration with a number of key partners”, said Keith Steele, CEO of IOTech. “For our customers looking to deploy the next generation of industrial system at the Edge, Edge XRT provides an intelligent and feature-rich IoT platform which can support the most demanding performance requirements while significantly reducing time-to-market for their projects.”