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The Global Need for Supply Chain Integrity Has Put the Focus on Industrial IoT (IIoT) System Design Challenges

In the post-pandemic era, IIoT can help drive a greater focus on supply chain integrity and the growing adoption of touchless technologies.

-By Bob Martin,Senior Technical Staff Engineer – Applications, MCU8 business unit, Microchip Technology Inc.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the difficult challenges within the global supply chain standards that need to be addressed. These developments have also led to a switch to design functions that address the needs of industrial processes and machines working round the clock; taking the focus away from personal biometric applications and autonomous vehicles to some extent.

Industrial IoT (IIoT), a segment of IoT, has well-defined application areas such as intelligent asset tracking, predictive maintenance, and manufacturing process optimization. While each of these brings its own challenges, what they share is the need for a solid security foundation. The adoption of touchless technologies rising from post-pandemic demand as well as the emergence of new market opportunities such as 5G and environmental monitoring also presents its own challenges.

IoT versus IIoT

While consumer applications such as biometric tracking using IoT emphasize personal privacy, it is less of a concern for typical IIoT solutions such as monitoring the cargo hold of a container ship. Each IIoT application usually has more specific functional targets. For example, intelligent asset tracking focuses on maintaining a secure chain of custody for goods during transport (Fig. 1). This notion is critical to the legal system as well as global supply chains.

Fig. 1: Intelligent asset tracking delivers a secure chain of custody for transported goods.

A predictive maintenance system alerts users before a potential breakdown occurs. Critical failures that require immediate attention can then be eliminated. For example, vehicles of HVAC service companies in urban areas are always in standby mode to reduce response times (Fig. 2).

Microchip Fig2
Fig. 2: Predictive maintenance helps reduce critical failures of IIoT systems.

Even though both predictive maintenance systems and process optimization systems help optimize performance, process optimization systems provide a more comprehensive review of the entire process by leveraging edge nodes and sensors. These edge nodes and sensors may not be linked directly to the control loops but focuses more on observing and detecting new patterns of material that may not be obvious yet can be optimized further.

Each application can work on a broad range of devices from very small form factor 8-bit MCUs and low-power, high-integration ARM® Cortex®-based MCUs to RISC-V/FPGA platforms supporting a wide array of IIoT node applications. Greater analog integration in today’s microcontrollers helps deliver a reduced external component count and overall design footprints. IDE environments, often available free of charge, also support these offerings. These include cross-platform offerings as well as hardware debugger/programmer tools. While some of these tools can provide real-time power analysis and basic logic analyzer functions, designers have the option to use pre-certified wireless modules. However, the industrial space typically relies more on hardwired connections, typically via Ethernet. The demand for IEEE® 1588 PTP-enabled products that extract data from node to node quickly, timely, and in redundant environments is increasing steadily to implement these connections. Leading IoT service providers such as Google, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure are working with semiconductor companies like Microchip to enable very quick and secure connections to the cloud by developing low-cost evaluation kits. Security ICs are another critical element since they scale from small MCU-based edge nodes to full-featured modules suitable for PC and server-based platforms. Basic devices typically come with trusted root certificates registered with major web service providers, thereby enabling a seamless out-of-box experience through IoT kits for cloud connections. These devices help system designers maintain the entire chain of custody for both edge node applications and data channels. Ensuring edge node application protection can be achieved through secure boot, secure over the air (OTA) or physical channel updates, tamper protection and data memory address scrambling. Currently, MCUs and MPUs have this capability internally, or it can be done by pairing MCUs/MPUs with companion secure element ICs. This enables the use of key-based authentication to validate transactions within systems. This protects the image from contamination or replication from unauthorized external agents to ensure that the correct image is executed. Furthermore, with the addition of secure element ICs, hardware spoofing can be avoided by extending the chain of trust to the sensors and actuators.

In-house programming services from semiconductor companies can ensure the maintenance of security standards of major web service vendors during the commissioning of root certificates and encryption keys.

Data channel protection that is secured through traceable root trust certificates is also important in terms of secure cloud connectivity and secure messaging. While encryption key rotation is a standard security methodology, implementation is easier here since secure element ICs are never required to expose private keys external to the secure device. Apart from these basic challenges faced by every IIoT system designer, new challenges have surfaced during early adoption of different solutions. These solutions include touch-free devices spurred by the pandemic, and evolving applications, such as 5G services and environmental monitoring systems.

Creating Touch-Free Experiences

The pandemic has shown the level of touch required to operate buttons and touch screens. This has created a push towards contactless user interfaces for both IoT and IIoT devices.

While there are a number of discrete turnkey touch controllers, integrated MCU solutions, and devices featuring 3D gesture recognition technology available, finding the right balance between noise suppression and sensitivity is a challenge, especially in high electrical noise environments such as industrial plants. By adding low-cost, low-power computing power to these local sensors, we can improve detection accuracy, reduce the load on the IoT network, and increase autonomous error-correcting behavior. We can further increase the accuracy of these systems through the shielding of sensor pads and fusing optical sensors with capacitive sensors.

As IoT gains popularity, having billions of nodes on the Internet, each generating small data packets, can present a massively challenging routing scenario. Therefore, there needs to be a balance between edge node intelligence and reliance on a persistent cloud connection. Routing small packets in a deterministic way can be quite demanding. Major IoT cloud vendors address this by setting up their own network backbone structures. These structures help address routing latency and reliability but also put more pressure on local providers to match the same quality of service (QoS). Fortunately, a 100-millisecond delay in a home security response time is still acceptable.

New Growth Areas for IIoT

With 5G becoming more widely available, it brings new opportunities for IIoT. However, it will also depend on the ability of mobile vendors to meet promises around the available bandwidth and coverage (Fig. 3).

Microchip Fig3
Fig. 3: 5G enables new IIoT opportunities.

The availability of better-quality NB-IoT and LTE-M coverage will dictate some trends in the semiconductor industry. With these two complementary technologies, users must weigh the performance tradeoffs. Evaluation boards that combine various types of MCUs and RF chipsets are now available to assess these new RF topologies, which compete in areas such as LoRa® implementations. The growing interest in environmental monitoring outside of standard weather stations, especially air quality, is another important yet complex opportunity, for instance, monitoring indoor CO2 levels post COVID-19 and air quality affected by bush fires. As methods of measurement at sensors and data presentation are not standardized, dispersed air quality readings were observed between different networks from the same location. Standardized measurement and presentation shall be adopted.

Moving Forward

As we move on from the global pandemic, the focus on supply chain integrity and the adoption of touchless technologies will continue to grow. IIoT technology will speed up these developments with the roll-out of 5G services and environmental monitoring solutions. It will also lead to the growth of applications that rely on edge nodes and sensors that enable control, basic tracking, and the ability to observe and detect behavioral patterns. As semiconductor companies continue to innovate and solve system design challenges, the post-COVID-19 world will benefit from more cost-effective and easy to deploy solutions.

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BiS Team

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