SIAA Columnist Part 7 : Connectivity & Interoperability: The Ultimate Enables



One hidden element underpins Industry 4.0 and the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). Few of the recent and future transformative digital technologies we discuss would not be possible without it. This emerging technological era has been dubbed "the information age", "the data age", and the cyber-physical revolution, but an equally accurate description would be - The Age of Connectivity.

Harnessing connectivity is the key to developing automation, robotics, virtual and augmented reality, Blockchain, more recently, the NFT and Metacerse and almost all Industry 4.0 systems. Without connectivity, data would be a blessing and a burden suffered by the wealthiest companies, and only by increasing connectivity will we see the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) truly blossom.

However, connectivity is useless unless the machines communicating can understand one another. So, in our journey to Industry 4.0, the field of interoperability has come to the fore to facilitate the smooth exchange of information between various devices and systems, often made by a range of manufacturers.

One of the good examples for addressing the criticality of connectivity is Singapore – a brilliant achiever in various endeavours. The Singapore Government's Smart Industry Readiness Index (SIRI) lists connectivity as one of its three technology pillars, the index stating that:

Connectivity — measures the state of interconnectedness between equipment, machines, and computer-based systems to enable communication and data exchange across assets. IoT-enabled devices are also increasing in both quality and quantity, generating enormous amounts of data as a result.

Technological advancements in cloud computing and wireless infrastructure also allow centrally collected and managed data. Likewise, systems that were once independent or isolated can now be integrated, unifying the various shop floor, facility, and enterprise systems through connected organisation-wide networks.

Interoperability — accessing data quickly across assets and systems is key to achieving this [connectivity]. Companies need to standardise or use complementary communication technologies and protocols to establish open, inclusive, and transparent communication networks.

Creating Connectivity

In a digital sense, connectivity is defined by the Oxford dictionary as the "capacity for the interconnection of platforms, systems, and applications." Connectivity, therefore, includes every machine to machine interaction, be it via traditional telephone and Ethernet cables, Wi-Fi and cellular networks, or the latest industrial communication protocols.

However, the concept of connectivity 4IR's context generally refers to the capacity for different network nodes to communicate with one another. More connectivity means more nodes and an increased flow of data, which leads to the greater intelligence of systems. Only by increasing connectivity can we hope to develop fully automated factories, distributed renewable energy, cognitive buildings, and smart cities that have begun to define our future.

The primary role of connectivity in Industry 4.0 is to enable companies throughout the manufacturing supply chain to form networks and optimise individual steps in the supply chain. Various information and communications technologies allow the creation of networks, including entire manufacturing processes, connect warehousing systems, intelligent machines, human workers, and production operations to bring about a wide range of enhanced functions and services.

Connectivity Today

Our quest for connectivity can be traced back long before the first telephone to the mail and messenger services that preceded it. However, in this digital age of smartphones, the internet, and process automation, the forefront of connectivity in manufacturing today is a broad range of cellular and industrial network protocols. Each racing to develop the characteristics that will make it a leading connectivity platform for Industry 4.0.

Industrial protocols are the cornerstone of interoperability in the manufacturing facility, developed to interconnect the systems, interfaces, and instruments that make up an industrial control system — often deployed throughout overall network architecture, including business, plant, networks, or Fieldbus networks. Popular industrial network protocols include Ethernet/IP, Ethercat, Modbus, and IO-Link, each offering different characteristics to suit their application.

Ethernet has long been seen as an ideal connectivity solution for industrial network communications due to being an open, proven, cost-effective, worldwide standard that's easy to implement and use. Furthermore, the 100 to 1000 megabit per second data rates it supports are significantly higher than most existing industrial field buses. In addition, IP adds integration and data transparency on all networking levels, allowing a seamless flow of data from the factory floor to the back office for management and control.

However, Ethernet/IP and other industrial network protocols are not sufficient to support the complexities of Industry 4.0 networks. For example, even though standard Ethernet protocols define communications from the physical hardware to the communications application layer, they do not include user application levels, such as data formatting to enable data exchange between equipment.

SigFox and LoRa have long been the major players in the Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) space. Each has low offering cost, low energy consumption, broad coverage, and significant capacity. However, their bandwidth per object is minimal (100 bps), and the latency is high (1s), preventing their deployment of the real-time applications that symbolise Industry 4.0. The 868 MHz and 920 MHz wavelengths also pose challenges indoors, meaning many manufacturing facilities have sought alternative connectivity solutions.

Cellular networks are the most widely used platform for digital connectivity today. The key challenges facing classic 2G are its increasingly limited range of applications, as Industry 4.0 increases bandwidth and latency demands. In addition, it is being phased out worldwide due to the maturing of 3G and 4G / LTE technology. Singapore, for example, decommissioned its 2G network in 2017. While major global operators, such as AT&T, Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone, have gradually been shutting down their 2G services in some territories. It is only a matter of time until the same trend takes shape in all ASEAN members.

3G is an evolution of the 2G-GSM communication standard, launched in 2000. 3G offered data transfer speeds of up to 14 Mbps (packet switching), four times faster than 2G. 4G offered similar features to 3G but significantly enhanced it with better use of bandwidth and speeds of 10Mbps-1Gbps.

5G & Industry 4.0

3G to 4G was a small step for connectivity, but 4G to 5G will be a giant leap for Industry 4.0. While 4G-based Industry 4.0 pilot projects are emerging, 5G will unleash an unprecedented scale of connectivity. 5G is promising to be the connectivity leap to make Industry 4.0 technologies available to the mass market. 5G brings robust; high-speed data transfer through very low (1ms) latency to enable the dependable, real-time, data-rich connectivity these advanced technologies demand. 5G offers lower frequency, designed to increase range, and low power consumption, helping the IoT take hold in large, remote, or distributed deployments.

The sheer volume of data that can transfer over 5G networks will bring powerful artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data analytics, which will drive efficiency and productivity to new levels.

The Singapore Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)'s Second Public Consultation on 5G Mobile Services and Networks state that 5G, globally acknowledged being the next giant leap in mobile and wireless communications, will be a critical part of this infrastructure. More than higher speeds, 5G will enable more things to be connected, with better reliability and lower latencies.

The emergence of 5G is not without friction, however. Strong criticism and difficult challenges persist. For example, in early 2019, a petition opposing the roll-out of 5G was signed by over 26,000 scientists on the grounds of health and environmental concerns. Others in the scientific community dismiss these claims and point to previous generations of cellular connectivity.

Further challenges, like spectrum bandwidth conflict with strategic infrastructures, such as weather satellite communication, represent technical hurdles to overcome. While complex regulatory demands also threaten to delay ambitious timelines set by many markets.

Several ASEAN members will have to consider significant regulatory reform before starting their full 5G roll-out. Previous iterations may have succeeded, but 5G is a different ball game with broad applications. As a result, all actors will need to work together, especially in the manufacturing space.

The Singapore 5G public consultation document states that besides commercial readiness of 5G technology, IMDA will have to consider other factors when allocating spectrum for 5G services. These include harmonising 5G spectrum bands amongst neighbouring countries in the region, reframing spectrum frequencies assigned for existing use and re-assigning them for 5G uses, and addressing coexistence issues with the neighbouring countries.


About the Columnist

Industry veteran Colin Koh is our monthly columnist to share with SIAA community the essence of ASEAN manufacturing and pragmatic tips on how to approach and navigate the fourth industrial revolution for their businesses. Stay tune to Colin's regular segment all about Smart Manufacturing 4.0 in ASEAN! Please visit more resource.