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What's in your Industrial Control Cabinet?

By Special Guest
Jörg Hecke, Head of Product Management, SEH Computertechnik
September 06, 2018

If you operate an industrial plant today, you're familiar with the automation brains of the outfit -- the shop floor's industrial control cabinet. Mounted in that cabinet's racks are the logic controllers that supervise and time industrial processes. They trigger the movement of mechanical devices like flow regulators, servo motors and heat lamps. That's also where sensor data is received, making all that automated direction and supervision possible.

The Cloud and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) enter this picture when automated activity starts drawing on intelligence beyond the cabinet. That's when data gets extracted and sent upstream in the network for deeper analysis; perhaps long-term, perhaps off-site and perhaps aggregated with data from other such sites.

That's also when sensors get so smart -- from all the interrelated variables that have been tracked and analyzed -- that they can recognize the sound or vibration of a pump about to break, in time for those alerted to fix or replace it. Now data flowing up through the cloud keeps informing and fine tuning this recognition, before flowing down to the apps and visual displays on the mobiles and desktop PCs of authorized users near and far.  

Broadly speaking, if you want to keep up with the pace of industrial automation and keep costs in line, you face two tasks: a) embedding your existing devices into the network and b) making them smart. The keys to both are in that cabinet. With the right, smart connections, even relatively traditional industrial applications can put Cloud and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to work. Here's a closer look into two such scenarios.

Bottling Plant Caps the Cost of Security
A bottling plant run with costly Siemens industrial automation must prevent unauthorized people from physically entering the shop floor and potentially disrupting production. It must also screen access to the plant's controls, presented through PC-based visualization. With a USB device server mounted in its control cabinet, the plant is able to bring two devices onto its network: a USB-based RFID reader and (via relay) an electrical door opener.

The same RFID cards that grant employees physical access through doors to restricted areas also authenticate them to the industrial PC in the cabinet, satisfying the requirements of two separate security checkpoints, one physical and one digital. The USB device servers also give plant operators freedom from vendor lock-in, with its associated cost savings and greater flexibility.

Greenhouse Grows Peak Efficiencies
A specialty plant breeder in Germany has spent heavily on modernizing and digitizing its greenhouses, updating its sensors, lamps, sprinklers and ventilation controls. This automation, however, is directed by preexisting "climate computers" from facilities automation company RAM. Reliable and well integrated with the grower's processes and workflow, these "Klimacomputers" control sprinklers, heat lamps and ventilation flaps in response to sensed conditions for a wide range of plants and cultivation requirements. They also represent significant preexisting investment. Produced in a pre-networked era, however, they came with older, serial interfaces.

In order to be able to network these climate computers and to safely access the greenhouse automation software from any internet connection, this company needed to get around this limitation. So they simply mounted a serial-to-USB data converter into the cabinet alongside the climate computer and connected that converter in turn to a USB device server, similarly mounted side-by-side on the cabinet's DIN rail.

These two devices and their management software effectively turned the Klimacomputer into a full-blown network device. Now the plant breeders can monitor and reprogram greenhouse operation from any branch of the company, anywhere, including a panel PC on-site. They can also roll out revisions to settings across multiple greenhouses from a central management station, as specific combinations of heat, light, water and fertilizer prove most effective for specific crops.

The serial-to-USB and USB device server solution is easily duplicated across a company intranet or Internet, when and if the company adds more branches and greenhouses.

In these actual use cases, DIN-mountable devices -- USB device server and serial-to-USB converter -- make it possible to bring serial and/or USB devices into the company network and the IIoT. They extend the life of existing equipment, enable the use of third-party, less expensive auxiliary devices and help keep pilot projects within budget. In addition, they allow the data generated by these applications to be aggregated across the company network and analyzed,  yielding optimized operation.

About the author: Jörg Hecke is head of Product Management at SEH Computertechnik GmbH, a technology innovator for network solutions in the licensed software/USB management and printing sectors. All SEH Technology products, including the INU-100 USB Industrial USB Device Server and the SU-320 Serial-to-USB data converter, are developed and produced at the company's headquarters in Bielefeld, Germany.

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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