Two Views of the Industrial Edge

By Michael Guilfoyle

Industry Trends

Despite all the market focus on the industrial edge, many companies struggle to identify precisely where (or even what) it is. This makes it difficult to deploy an effective operational analytics strategy. When considering an industrial edge environment, it is helpful to think about it from both operating and network infrastructure perspectives.

Operational Industrial Edge

The operational edge is the most straightforward of the two edge environments. It’s the logical operating endpoint of a business and, as such, it is relatively easy to understand, though it can “shift,” based on who within the organization is defining the edge (enterprise, customer, operations, etc.).

The logic transfers to industrial and infrastructure environments. A mining company considers a site, and equipment within it, to be the operational edge of its business. For oil and gas, it could be a platform or well and the related equipment, such as flare stacks, pipelines, and pumps.

For a manufacturer, the operational edge within the plant consists of machines and equipment, such as a material handling robot, a metalworking press, or capacitor. For an electric utility with generating assets, the edge would be a turbine within a coal- or gas-fired plant or a gearbox on a wind turbine. If the same utility transmits and distributes that electricity, the operational edge could extend to substations, transformers, and, perhaps, electric-vehicle charging stations. As infrastructure extends into a community, the operational edge becomes heavy- or li­ght-rail trains and the engines, and brakes within them, or elevators within facilities.

In each of these examples, the edge equipment fulfills a limited, and sometimes isolated, critical purpose within a larger operational process.  The context of the equipment performance within operations is well understood.

Network Industrial Edge

In contrast, the network industrial edge is not as evident to industrial operators. Much of the confusion emanates from operations personnel who view technology through the lens of long-standing, refined processes, including distributed process control, programmable logic control, and other automation applications.  That often leads to the misperception that IIoT processes are similar in construct and value to what they have successfully done for decades.

Industrial Edge Key Components

That network view is informed by data sharing, hierarchies, and systems that proceeded the development of the industrial internet.  In the traditional OT world those systems were isolated within operational process siloes, and so IT was considered outside of that purview and, often, a barrier to efficient operations.  

In fact, defining the network edge begins as an IT endeavor, but it doesn’t end there. It starts with cloud computing, based on the development of internet-enabled data sharing and the creation of smart devices. The cloud became the “centralized” environment from which the “edge” could then be identified and defined. The network edge was viewed as the equipment and systems that fed data to it. That definition is too simplistic for today’s industrial purposes.

Like its operational counterpart, the industrial network edge occurs at the logical extremes of an information technology network. It consists of the equipment and devices capable of data communication, management (e.g. security, visualization, preparation, storage), and/or computing.

The network infrastructure edge can include a range of technologies, and this ecosystem diversity is often an additional point of confusion. It is often a mix of traditional IT equipment and devices as well as purpose-built industrial systems, and technology such as sensors and actuators can be added. These many technologies can be introduced into an industrial environment as individual components or within a network. Their functionality can also be embedded within operational infrastructure, such as turbines, vehicles, robots, etc.  

One IIoT to Rule Them All and Somewhere in the Business Bind Them

Okay, so not quite as eloquent at Tolkien. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) now binds together operational and network infrastructure edges into a cohesive whole. That’s one part of the whole IT/OT convergence thing you might have heard a little about…

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