Trends

Category: Trends

Platform dynamics: OPC Classic vs. OPC UA

Recently, I had to dig into OPC Classic vs. OPC UA specifications, which are part of a series of frameworks for industrial interoperability. Yes, the reading on this topic is very dry, but it points to an ongoing shift in the way PLCs–and machinery they control–are connected to applications, data management tools, and each other.

The quick history: OPC (OLE for Process Control) was the 1990s love child of a team at Microsoft and various industrial automation vendors. Novotek outlines some of the technology history.

Microsoft was actually pushing OLE in various industrial and business segments–this ancient article from my old employer Computerworld shows MS getting three dozen players in CAD lined up behind The Borg in providing OLE-compliant software.

It’s important to note that Bill Gates circa 1995 wasn’t a soft and cuddly figure like MIcrosoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella. Gates was all about platform control, something he had engineered so well with the Windows-dominated PC platform, with some timely incompetence from IBM. Gates wanted to extend control to profitable verticals–even if MS didn’t write the applications, with OPC they could still dictate the platform architecture to other vendors and thus encourage deep-pocketed business and industrial companies to sign up for Windows NT and other Microsoft products and services.

Stacking up the specs: OPC Classic vs. OPC UA

OPC Classic flavors (including OPC DA and HDA) ruled the roost for more than a decade. Besides being Windows-centric, they also used Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) for data transportation, which could be difficult to configure. In the late 1990s, the OPC Foundation was established at ISA Chicago and began work on creating a new set of specifications, including OPC UA. Benefits of the new spec would include:

  • Support for operating systems other than Windows

  • Ability to integrate open source contributions

  • Support for a wide range of hardware platforms

  • Web services instead of DCOM

  • Improved security features

  • Better networking support

The OPC Foundation is now making a play for OPC UA to become a “universal protocol” for IIoT/industrial connectivity and Industry 4.0.

Endpoint: After reading this, half of you are probably saying “who cares?” while the other half wants to school me on some obscure yet important technical detail that I missed.

But there’s a bigger lesson here: Companies gain power and profit by controlling platforms and associated standards, and can set the stage for control for years. Microsoft wanted Windows and related software and services to dominate the industrial market, and its actions to steer development of OPC Classic standards helped it achieve control over the market for industrial automation software.

Looking to the future of IoT and connected industry, the battles over communications standards and advances in artificial intelligence will determine which companies have control over the next 10-15 years. Specifications could end up looking more like OPC Classic, with dominance by a single powerful company … or they could be more open, like the OPC UA model. Time will tell …

A look at the future of Augmented Reality from #ARinAction

PPR visited the #ARinAction Industry Summit, which took place at the MIT Media Lab on January 16-17. This is a great event to not only see the future of AR, but also to learn how augmented reality is being applied in industry today. Here are some highlights:

  • Near-instant 3D model creation of interior spaces just a few years away? “In the next year or two there will be devices that can capture a 3D model of a room in a few seconds,” said Mark Billinghurst, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at the University of South Australia. If he’s right, and the models are accurate, this greatly reduces the requirements for 3D model creation in closed spaces, which could be a boon for AR as well as industrial IoT applications that require spatial data.

  • PTC’s Mike Campbell trotted out some industrial AR demos which were slick … yet didn’t look that convincing. For instance, one showed Ford engineers or designers wearing Hololens headsets and looking at data layered on top of a model sports car. It was neat, but it didn’t seem like the value delivered from this experience was superior to screen-based or paper alternatives.

  • PTC wasn’t the only one showing off unconvincing AR demos. One of the academic presenters had an AR tool for demonstrating math and physics concepts to students, which looked cool, yet also seemed complicated and costly. There are not many school systems that could realistically invest in hardware, training, and content to make this work for their students.

  • On the other hand, the DHL augmented reality system demonstrated by PTC seemed to be an effective solution for a real industrial use case. It is used to find and track items in a large logistics operation, and seems more promising, as it’s hands free and speeds the completion of specific tasks. This is similar to the Google Glass system used by AGCO to track completion of manufacturing tasks, and may even be competitive with other IoT logistics systems entering the market, such as ProGlove.

  • Speaking of Google Glass, it was barely mentioned at ARinAction. This surprised me … isn’t Google trying to reposition Glass for industrial use? But then Steven Feiner of Columbia University shared a piece of information that might explain why Glass was MIA from the conference: Google Glass is not really augmented reality: “Google Glass isn’t a true AR display,” Feiner said. “It can’t handle overlays, for one … Doesn’t have stereoscopic view, either.”

  • Solos AR glasses for cycling based on Kopin componentsInnovations from the military are making their way into industrial and consumer devices. John Fan, the CEO of military supplier Kopin presented an example – the heads-up displays used by F-35 pilots have led to technologies that can be used in AR-equipped firefighting helmets from Scott Sight. There was also a prototype cycling AR display (see inset photo) that used Kopin components. Fan shared a relevant observation about helmet-based AR: “Basic premise: humans don’t want to wear things on their heads,” he said, explaining that the technology has to deliver real value to get them to wear headsets … and keep them on. This is true for military and public safety uses in which lives are stake, but perhaps less so for other applications.

  • “Interim devices” are the trend in augmented reality for the next 10 years, according to futurist and author Charlie Fink. “For AR to realize its potential, it needs to know you, and where you are, and it has to have access to data,” Fink said. “We’re not there yet.” He stated that a lack of infrastructure and key breakthroughs are holding back AR.

  • There is a lot of froth in the marketplace. Analyst Tim Merel, a former engineer, noted the arrival of ARKit and other AR tools from Facebook, Tencent, and others, which fuels interest in the field. Nevertheless, “there are even more VCs than there are startups,” he said. Merel noted “mobile AR still at the very early stages” and exits will be relatively small in the near term, as dominant companies have yet to emerge.

Endpoint: It was interesting to see some of the trends and examples in augmented reality, but at the same time there seems to be a lot of wishful thinking among some of the technologists, academics, and investors, not to mention a fair number of research projects or proof-of-concept applications that won’t go anywhere. Just because a technology is cutting edge and dramatic doesn’t mean it will be useful out in the field … or that humans will want to use it.

CES 2018 trends: AI, VR/AR, and a hint of 5G

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas isn’t just a gathering of gadget and toy manufacturers. CES 2018 had a lot of presentations, talks, and displays by vendors targeting industrial users. Here are some other CES trends worth noting:

AI assistants: Google dominated CES with announcements related to Home and other AI-powered assistants. While Google’s voice-controlled assistants don’t seem very relevant to industry, take the long view: Just as the Web and smartphones burrowed into industry after conquering the home, so will voice-controlled AI. Google, Amazon, and others are pouring billions into AI R&D, and the end result will be much more than ordering pizzas from your couch. Imagine voice-controlled devices, status updates, or diagnostics on the factory floor or out in the field — or synthetic voices that are indistinguishable from real humans. The physical form factor will surely be different, but it will be a game changer for many industrial users.

VR/AR: 3D graphics have already had an impact on certain areas of industry (CAD and some emerging uses of Google Glass spring to mind) but I am skeptical that the latest generation of VR headsets and haptics technology making much headway into industry. I’ve been around long enough to see misguided 3D hype lead corporate customers down the wrong path (anyone remember Second Life?) and I suspect the latest crop of VR technologies will remain more of a consumer phenomenon. Industrial operators aren’t going to put on a full-immersion VR headset, although there may be some applications for remote operation, evaluation, and training (as healthcare startup SimForHealth demonstrated at CES). AR looks more interesting, and Glass shows that there are some niche applications that can help companies save money and time.  

Smart Cities. There were reportedly more “smart city” vendors than companies selling gaming products or drones. The displays around smart cities had lots of eye candy when it came to autonomous vehicles and IoT-enabled homes, but a less-visible technology was the recently approved 5G standard. Qualcomm, Samsung, Ericsson, and other companies were hyping the heck out of 5G, but on the show floor there wasn’t much hardware to show in the smart city pavillion or elsewhere. That will likely change next year, as vendors bring their 5G-capable devices to the show, not only for the consumer market but also industrial uses.

Four industrial IoT & AI Predictions for 2018

PPR has some predictions for IoT and AI in the coming year. This article first appeared in the PPR newsletter – subscribe today!

#1: The year of turnkey IIoT solutions

Vendors have figured out that many industrial customers don’t have the expertise to plan and execute an industrial IoT rollout. In 2018, more and more vendors will partner to offer turnkey IIoT solutions combining hardware, software, systems, and services. Look for announcements from industrial vendors working with big names in IT counterparts and/or integrators throughout the year.

#2: IoT pilots get real

When it comes to pilot projects involving industrial IoT, 2018 is the year many firms will move beyond talking the talk and start walking the walk. The availability of turnkey solutions, not to mention heightened interest in IoT and related industrial automation technologies, will translate to more industrial IoT pilot projects in 2018. The pilots are more likely to take place at midsized and large firms with healthy balance sheets and mandates to innovate. These projects will not only help industrial companies evaluate the technologies, but will also create technological foundations and centers of internal expertise that can help broaden these pilots into full-fledged production systems in the years to come.

#3: Amazon ascendant

Industrial vendors and high-tech players in industrial IT including Rockwell, GE, and Microsoft will be dealing with a new player in town: Amazon. Not content with merely offering highly profitable cloud services to companies, Amazon wants to control various platforms that feed into its AWS cloud offerings. The FreeRTOS announcement in November was a sign of things to come (see Parsing Amazon’s FreeRTOS announcement: Interesting, “but kind of strange”). In 2018, look for Amazon partnering with key vendors, making new acquisitions, taking a more active role in standards-setting bodies, and announcing new products and services to bolster the attractiveness of the AWS ecosystem to industrial customers.

#4: Industrial ML apps: still a work in progress

Late last year PPR published “It’s time for a Machine Language reality check.” In 2018, we will hear more of the same hand-waving hype about industrial applications of ML, but the really important developments will be in the foundational technologies that will allow vendors to build industrial ML applications and services. Google is the big player in this space, but smaller companies with strong AI R&D capabilities may have some interesting announcements as well.

This article first appeared in the PPR newsletter on January 2, 2018.

It’s time for a Machine Language reality check

Gartner recently came out with its top strategic technology trends report for 2018. Highlights are here. Gartner tossed out a lot of red meat for people to chew on, but when the topic turned to artificial intelligence, one section stood out:

“Although using AI correctly will result in a big digital business payoff, the promise (and pitfalls) of general AI where systems magically perform any intellectual task that a human can do and dynamically learn much as humans do is speculative at best. Narrow AI, consisting of highly scoped machine-learning solutions that target a specific task (such as understanding language or driving a vehicle in a controlled environment) with algorithms chosen that are optimized for that task, is where the action is today.”

The reference to near-human capable AI has a lot to do with the steady stream of intelligent robots and computers that Hollywood has created since the 1950s, and science fiction writers and comic book artists going back to the 1920s. But this type of AI, known as general artificial intelligence, is decades away. A young robotics researcher at MIT told me earlier this year that she doubts she will see something like this in her lifetime. So, don’t count on R2D2 or a Cyberdyne Systems series T-800 showing up on the plant floor to take care of business anytime soon.

That brings us to Gartner’s claim that narrow AI is where the action is today. I partially agree.  The issues I have with this claim are:

  1. Narrow AI is not all machine learning (ML).
  2. ML is not ready for prime time, at least when it comes to industrial applications.

Machine Language reality check

Machine Language reality check Allow me to explain. While machine learning is a huge buzzword in all areas of tech, few companies can afford to make investments in the talent and applications and hardware required to do ML effectively. Further, all flavors of ML require enormous sets of data to be trained. We’re talking tens or even hundreds of thousands of images or inputs or whatever.

So, while a company like Google or Amazon can make the necessary investments to train an AI to tell a blueberry muffin from a chihuahua, it will be a lot harder for a midsized shipping company to train an autonomous forklift to navigate around an obstacle in a busy warehouse.

It’s worth noting that ML isn’t the only game in town. An older flavor of narrow AI that uses programmed routines or algorithms is still huge in industry. Examples include an industrial oven at a manufacturer that regulates temperatures based on inputs such as humidity and the grade of raw materials being used, or a mining cart that drives along a preprogrammed route and regulates speed according to weight and downstream readiness indicators. It’s not as sexy as ML, but it’s available now and can be used in all kinds of IoT-driven industrial applications.   

Endpoint: We’re approaching peak hype for machine learning. Three takeaways:

  1. The promise is huge, but the reality is ML is still too expensive for most industrial companies — the investment in time and money is significant, the tools aren’t ready, and the talent isn’t available unless you have really deep pockets.
  2. Be on the lookout for hand-waving vendors and experts promising untold riches from ML — and dominant tech players creating the necessary platforms for other vendors to build or connect ML applications.
  3. Don’t disregard other types of narrow AI based on programmed logic or optimization algorithms – capabilities may be limited to basic processes or routines, but the tools are available and are relatively straightforward to implement.