PICMG geared up to help accelerate adoption of IIoT

More than a decade has passed since the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) was introduced, but the vision has yet to fully materialize. While some important progress has been made with small wearable devices, thermostats, and smart phones, the average consumer hasn’t yet experienced significant advantage from interconnected devices working together for their benefit. Cloud computing, big data analytics, and artificial intelligence are helping to change this trend, but each of these technologies also brings new challenges. The largest barriers to commercial IoT rollout today appear to be technological (security), sociological (privacy), and economic (cost versus benefit). Through standardization, however, PICMG’s solutions can significantly improve the ease with which Industrial IoT (IIoT) installations can be deployed.

This is not to say that the future of IoT is bleak, but rather, its immediate application may be best suited to areas where these barriers are less significant. The industrial markets that PICMG [PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group] serves are such places. In the areas of military, medical, transportation, and industrial automation, the adoption and use of embedded computing and control solutions has long been commonplace. PICMG’s computing technologies today are used in ground, air, and sea-based military applications, they control railroads and factories, and they also provide critical functionality to scientific and medical equipment.

At PICMG we seek to accelerate the adoption of IIoT in the markets we serve by providing meaningful open specifications and design guides to aid our member companies in creating high-quality, interoperable computing solutions. We are doing this by leveraging our historic strengths in industrial computing, expanding our community of practice to embrace a wider audience of IoT developers, and building partnerships with other IIoT-focused standards organizations.

Distinctions of the Industrial Internet of Things

There are three main distinctions that make IIoT different than traditional industrial automation: ubiquitous sensing, advanced analytics, and IT methodologies. These are described briefly below.

  • Ubiquitous sensing

Analogous to the broader IoT space, which envisions ubiquitous connectivity of intelligent devices, Industrial IoT is characterized by ubiquity of connected sensors and actuators. While traditional automation employs sensors and actuators primarily for the most critical elements of control, IIoT includes sensors and actuators for facility operations, machine health, ambient conditions, quality, and a variety of other functions. The ubiquity of sensing and control is key to enabling the next cornerstone of IIoT – advanced analytics.

  • Advanced analytics

Advanced analytics enables the IIoT system to realize higher levels of operational efficiency by extracting meaning from a vast array of deployed sensors. Smart factories and other IIoT applications use analytics to improve uptime, optimize asset utilization, and reduce overhead costs. Improved operational efficiency provided by advanced analytics is the primary motivator for IIoT adoption today.

  • IT methodologies

The third defining characteristic of IIoT is the transformation of traditional automation techniques to use technologies that have been historically associated with information technology. This transformation has three key benefits. First, migration to IT technology enables the IIoT operator to utilize the large IT talent pool. Second, standardization around IT practices helps to eliminate islands of proprietary equipment within the installation and provide tighter integration between the control domain and the operations domain. Lastly, adoption of IT methodologies enables IIoT companies to leverage the large existing base of IT hardware and software solutions. Each of these benefits offers significant potential for capital and operational savings. (Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Key distinctions of IIoT as compared to traditional industrial automation.
(Click graphic to zoom)

Barriers to adoption

A recent study by Morgan Stanley [1] indicates that the top three challenges to IIoT deployment (in order) are cybersecurity, lack of standardization, and legacy installed base. Each of these is summarized briefly below.

  • Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity in IIoT takes on new dimensions because the connected devices interact and control real-world activities. Connected factories, power plants, aircraft, and other vehicles pose significant threats to public safety if hacked. Corporate and national economic impacts also cannot be overlooked. The collapse of a power grid or national transportation system has much farther-reaching impacts than even the largest consumer data breaches. For these reasons, robust cybersecurity is an absolute ­essential in IIoT. It is expected that most IIoT applications will run on private, ­dedicated ­networks with strict physical-access control protocols.

  • Lack of standardization

Historically, industrial automation has been accomplished using a variety of proprietary, vertically integrated automation solutions, or by open standards-based industrial computing solutions such as PICMG’s CompactPCI. While the first of these solutions offers the convenience of an integrated approach, each vendor’s equipment may not work well with others. This causes islands of isolated equipment within the industrial deployment that is difficult to integrate and manage as a whole. The second solution, while offering many benefits such as scalability, flexibility, and less risk, often puts the burden of software creation on the operator. This solution can be cumbersome when attempting to assimilate the large number of dissimilar sensor types associated with IoT deployment.

Standardization of the upstream interfaces for controller devices and metadata models for sensors would go a long way toward eliminating both of these problems. Standardized interfaces would enable dissimilar pieces of hardware to communicate with the IIoT command center in a uniform fashion and eliminate isolated islands within the installment. Likewise, an extensible standardized metadata model for sensors would allow for systematic detection and control of sensors and control points without extensive code rewrites. From a hardware standpoint, IIoT would also benefit from greater standardization around communications interfaces, power, and environmental requirements.

  • Legacy installed base

Very few technology transformations occur overnight. As a result, legacy equipment must be able to coexist with the new. Any successful IIoT strategy must incorporate this reality. Standardization can help bridge the gap in the short term and PICMG is preparing to apply its track record of backward compatibility and interoperability toward alleviating the worst of these issues.

Architectural overview

The largest and fastest growing segment of the Industrial Internet of Things market is the “Smart Factory.” The rest of this article uses this application as an example of how IIoT may be applied. Figure 2 shows an example of a smart factory layout.

Figure 2: Smart factory layout example.
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Smart factory example

The factory floor is the heart of the smart factory. It contains multiple robotic assembly machines, automated test equipment and various other process-related pieces of equipment. Each of these is fully automated and integrated utilizing the standard network interfaces and common data model. In addition to control and monitoring of the actual manufacturing process, the machines are also instrumented with other sensors to help assess the health of the equipment and correlate operational dynamics with factory output quality.

In order to feed the automated factory, the warehouse and stockroom is also fully instrumented. Because the factory control and the inventory control systems both leverage IT methodologies, integration and analysis between the two domains is easily achievable, enabling actual factory production rates to factor into intelligent purchasing and inventory management algorithms.

Environmental conditions are monitored in real time providing useful information regarding energy usage from air conditioning, lighting, and other resources. This function also monitors and controls other resources such as on-site power generation and backup generator status. This information, combined with deep analytics, may be used to prioritize workloads in order to optimize resource utili­zation and minimize operational costs.

All of these functions are interconnected with the factory control center via Ethernet (or industrial Ethernet when required). The control center provides visualization and control of the entire factory operations utilizing standard IT technologies.

Figure 3 shows an architectural decomposition for IIoT. All components are connected via Ethernet (or industrial Ethernet) unless otherwise shown. Legacy equipment co-exists with newer equipment, though potentially at a lower level of functionality, and a common metadata model enables discovery and control of IIoT devices in a flexible and extensible fashion.

Figure 3: IIoT components showing areas of PICMG contribution.
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At the lowest level of the architecture, sensors and control points provide connectivity to physical phenomena within the factory. IIoT sensors present themselves as intelligent, managed devices over the factory network using the common metadata model. Using RESTful application programming interfaces, sensors may be monitored and controlled using standard IT methodologies. Because these sensors operate in a live factory environment, ruggedization is an expected requirement.

Legacy sensors and controllers may be connected to the IIoT control center. Initially, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) can be connected over their existing interfaces and be managed through legacy software. As an intermediate step to full IIoT functionality, the PLC can later be replaced by an IIoT control gateway. This device “translates” the sensor’s native protocols to a standardized IT data interface using the common metadata model. This approach enables the same sensors to be used while the control architecture is migrated to IIoT technologies. As a final step, sensors can later be replaced with fully IIoT-enabled sensors.

The final piece of the IIoT architecture is an aggregating network gateway. This device serves to aggregate and isolate traffic between zones on the factory floor and the rest of the network. In many cases, the bandwidth of traffic from the factory devices will be low so a ruggedized, 10/100/1000 switch will typically be more than sufficient.

PICMG contributions to IIoT

Because of the importance of industry standardization to IIoT rollout, and PICMG’s long-standing support of the industrial computing marketplace, PICMG is currently gearing up for the first wave of sensor-level software and hardware specifications. Those interested in deploying with existing technology can use the COM Express or CompactPCI Serial form factors, which are well-suited for small gateway control and IIoT controller functions.

PICMG is committed to accelerating the rollout of IIoT. Through standardization, PICMG’s solutions can improve the ease with which IIoT installations can be deployed. If you or your company are interested in joining PICMG in this effort, please contact us at www.picmg.org.


1. Morgan Stanley. (2017). Automation World Industrial Automation Survey.

Doug Sandy is the Vice President of Technology for PICMG, with over 24 years of industry experience in the embedded computing, industrial automation, telecommunications, and cloud computing spaces. Doug has worked as Technical Fellow, Chief Technology Officer, and Chief Architect for major corpor­ations including Motorola, Emerson, and Artesyn Embedded Technologies. Sandy has focused much of his career advancing industry standards that provide multivendor interoperability and COTS solutions such as DeviceNet, ETSI NFV, and the PICMG families of specifications. He now enjoys training the next generation of engineers at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus where he is a full-time educator and program coordinator for software-engineering capstone projects. Readers may reach Doug at [email protected]

PICMG [PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group] www.picmg.org