Why Modular Platforms Make Sense for IIoT Testing

A new world is quickly taking shape in which machines are linked to factories, warehouses and power grids, and they are connected to the world to share data, turn this data into valuable business insights, and create new efficiencies.

By Majeed Ahmad

A new world is quickly taking shape in which machines are linked to factories, warehouses and power grids, and they are connected to the world to share data, turn this data into valuable business insights, and create new efficiencies. A warehouse, for instance, can manage inventories in real-time, and a smart factory can monitor machines and self-prepare for maintenance without a shutdown.

However, given the mission-critical nature of these applications, increasingly put under the Industrial internet of things (IIoT) fold, these systems must be well designed and rigorously tested. And that’s one of the key stumbling blocks in the democratization of IIoT applications.

The IIoT testing is complex, and it gets even more complicated when you think about how to test data in a smart factory or a power plant where multiple systems are connected. And these systems encompass both device-to-device communications and automated analytics.

Next, IIoT systems demand zero defects with no waste or rework while they continuously  monitor industrial equipment, protecting lives, huge revenue streams, or both. Moreover, advanced technologies like machine learning are being added to the equation, demanding a new approach for creating testbeds for condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.

The preferred test platforms are the ones that are flexible and open enough to carry out RF and signaling measurements efficiently and integrate sensor signals into the testbed seamlessly. That way, an IIoT test system enables operators to make smart decisions, maximize uptime and reduce maintenance costs.

A New Test Approach

The IIoT systems are constantly evolving, so piecemeal hardware systems with software built from scratch don’t hold much sway in this new technology realm. Another key consideration is how to create IIoT-enabled test systems without spending a fortune. In other words, how can we make test systems smarter?

For a start, a wide array of IIoT applications demand standard and open architectures for testing IIoT designs. For example, take a micro-grid, which can communicate and control machine operations and carry out asset monitoring remotely while managing scalability and operability between different communication standards. Flexibility in an IIoT test system is also critical because technology is moving fast while communication standards are being adopted and streamlined.

So the platform-based test solutions can be more valuable in heterogeneous industrial environments. A combination of modular hardware with extensible software can handle device interconnection and interoperability across a broad range of IIoT applications.

Another crucial requirement in IIoT systems is intelligent data collection and analysis, and here, a modular platform can calibrate the processing power according to the volume of data. For instance, a test and measurement system can employ faster processors when the amount of data is overwhelming.

A recent Frost & Sullivan study titled “Adoption of Industrial IoT in the Global Test and Measurement Market” affirms the promise of IIoT testing built around a software infrastructure that runs on modular hardware driven by the fastest processors to remotely monitor, analyze and control industrial machines such as motors and pumps.

Ultimately, the report forecasts, more than 80 percent of IIoT test systems will be software-centric built on modular form factors. And that, according to the report, will boost accuracy and create substantial cost savings for the up-and-coming IIoT designs.

Modular Test Merits

In a modular setup, an IIoT test system can take advantage of user-programmable FPGAs or faster CPUs to monitor device-to-device communication and process automated analytics while being aided by flexible software platforms. The modular test platforms based on National Instruments’ LabVIEW software are a case in point.

First and foremost, modular hardware combined with LabVIEW software saves IIoT designers from the hassles of developing software from the ground up. Second, it provides a breadth of measurement and control inherently required in the diverse world of IIoT applications.

Third, solutions like NI’s reconfigurable I/O (RIO) incorporate high-speed data capture and thus help create tightly-integrated test solutions. Fourth, while the PXI-based modular platforms employ user-programmable FPGA hardware, if RF measurements demand greater processing power or the amount of data analytics is overwhelming, FPGA can be replaced with a more powerful Xeon processor.

Finally, modular platforms help create future-proof test systems amid the rapidly evolving IIoT landscape. Case in point: new PXI modules can be incorporated into existing test systems. That also shows how a modular approach can help create new venues for making the IIoT test systems smarter.

A new generation of smarter test systems is inevitable because bare-bones testing is no longer an option for IIoT applications. The modular test platforms seem to have a clear edge on the traditional big-box solutions.

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