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Could e-paper displays be putting the Industrial IoT within reach?

Industrial automation is going through a transition, as the benefits of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) take hold.

This isn’t going to be a quick and easy transition, however, and with good reason. Compared to the IT sector, the operational technology (OT) sector moves slowly, predominantly because the technology involved has a much longer lifecycle. IT systems are replaced on a cycle measured in months, not years, or in some cases decades, as is the case with the OT.

Suppliers of the industrial control systems (ICS) that run the OT world are now beginning to embrace technologies that began in the IT domain, such as cloud computing, open-source software, virtualisation and even artificial intelligence (AI).

As these technologies begin to pervade the industrial automation sector, suppliers and manufacturers will start to fully benefit from the IIoT.

However, the shift will be slow. It will need to be done in a way that preserves the large investment in incumbent systems, while making way for new technologies to be more easily integrated in the future. Virtualisation is likely to be a key technology here, as it allows the functionality of existing systems to be migrated to new hardware, without requiring a complete redesign of the entire network.

It may be difficult for manufacturers to know where to start, and they are likely to be heavily reliant on their suppliers, to help them navigate their way through what promises to be quite a challenging new terrain.

Fortunately, it isn’t going to be a cliff edge – there will be an opportunity to ease into the IIoT through technologies that effectively bridge the man-machine interface.

One of these is touch-responsive displays. Unlike existing electromechanical user interfaces, this provides a direct path to the factory’s network, allowing actions and process updates to be recorded and shared much more easily than by using a conventional paper-based system to record what’s happening on the factory floor.

Once recorded, this information is now accessible by other systems on the network. Today that may be a short list, but it could easily be extended to include information points that detail exactly what’s going on where, and when. Using an application programming interface (API), any device can be given access to a back-office system.

An API is essentially a way for one machine to talk to another, typically through an encrypted message that follows an industry-standard format such as representational state transfer (REST), using commands such as GET, PUT, POST, PATCH and DELETE. Practically any small microcontroller can implement a RESTful interface.

An e-paper display complements this interface. As they don’t require any power to maintain the information on the display, e-paper displays could be used at various points in a smart factory without increasing the energy budget.

Because they are so small and low power, they could even be located in places where operatives rarely need to access but could benefit from context-sensitive and timely information when they do, such as inside a piece of equipment. The ability to include touch-responsive functionality means the e-paper display could also be used to collect additional data from operatives working in the area.

The move to the IIoT is likely to be slow, at least by today’s standards, but it doesn’t have to painful. Using connected e-paper displays could be just one of the ways to begin that transition, tapping into and adding to the wealth of data already being collected at the factory floor.

Above: Scott Soong is CEO of Pervasive Displays

Scott Soong

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