IIoT Is Coming to Your Factory and Warehouse. How Will You Deploy Your Industrial Edge Network Infrastructure?

Glenn Wishnew •

While the pandemic slowed the deployment of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies in factories and warehouses, there is little doubt that these environments are growing, connected, and data-intensive. The IIoT, also sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0, just holds too much potential value not to eventually find a home in most modern factories and warehouses.

In fact, McKinsey predicted prior to the pandemic that the IIoT will generate an economic value of between $1.2 to $3.7 trillion by 2025. While the actual economic value of the IIoT in the coming years will be reduced by the events of 2020, this projection does reflect the potential that exists by reducing downtime, increasing asset utilization, and improving productivity and efficiency through IIoT technology.

The Value of IIoT Edge Computing

The IIoT connects a mesh of sensors, equipment, controls and industrial computing platforms to provide visibility and control of the equipment and processes on which warehouses and factories depend. The sensors and other devices that enable these applications generate such large volumes of data in a given time period that it is impractical to rely exclusively on the cloud to support the real-time analytics and decision making these applications require. That means, in many cases, realizing the benefits of the IIoT will require locating IT equipment on the warehouse or factory floor, where it is exposed to much harsher conditions than in the data center or even in an office environment. 

Infrastructure Challenges of the Industrial Edge 

Enterprises planning to deploy edge computing infrastructure in industrial environments must consider how the following range of conditions seen in those environments could impact IT systems, putting them at risk:

  • Power Variations: As with any edge location, dedicated power backup is essential to prevent disruptions in utility power from impacting system availability. However, in manufacturing and automated warehouse environments, power conditioning can be even more important. The machinery operating in these facilities can generate electrical noise capable of disrupting IT equipment unless power is properly “conditioned” prior to reaching IT systems. Different types of UPS solutions employ different approaches to power conditioning, and the type of UPS selected will determine how effective it is at removing various power disturbances. In harsh environments, an online double-conversion UPS will usually be the best choice because it outputs a clean, consistent AC waveform.
  • Environmental Conditions: Most industrial environments are unable to maintain temperature and humidity within the range required for reliable IT equipment operation. Dedicated cooling will be necessary. And in the large, open spaces of a warehouse or factory, this cooling is usually integrated into or mounted on the side of the IT enclosure.
  • Air Quality: Industrial environments also have a higher concentration of airborne dust and particulates than a dedicated data center. These contaminants can impact the reliability and life expectancy of IT equipment if they are pulled into the equipment by server fans. Protecting IT equipment requires dust-protected or sealed IT racks or enclosures that prevent unfiltered outside air from reaching the equipment. With dedicated cooling integrated into the enclosure, a clean, temperature-controlled environment is created, regardless of outside air quality.
  • Physical Security: The core philosophy of edge computing is to locate computing and storage close to the people and equipment it supports. In manufacturing, that typically means having IT equipment where it is vulnerable to access by unauthorized personnel. Lockable cabinets can help prevent unauthorized access. Another best practice is to deploy sensors on the door that trigger alerts when the door is open.
  • Network Edge Infrastructure Visibility: Most edge computing sites are in environments where dedicated technical resources are scarce. Remote monitoring capabilities give centralized IT specialists visibility into equipment performance, allowing them to ensure equipment is operating as intended. When equipped with additional sensors, remote monitoring can also generate alerts for situations that could put equipment at risk, such as elevated temperatures, water intrusion, or unauthorized access.

Ensuring Protection and Streamlining Deployment of IIoT Infrastructure

Organizations implementing IIoT in harsh environments can “build” a solution by selecting power, cooling, enclosure, and monitoring solutions that meet the demands of their environment and integrating these components on site.

But that approach can extend deployment times, strain IT resources, and make it more difficult to standardize infrastructure across multiple facilities. A better approach is to take advantage of complete integrated micro data center solutions designed and pre-tested to provide superior performance and reliability.

The Vertiv™ VRC-S family of edge-ready micro data centers uses standardized IT-grade components to enable fast and repeatable deployments of IIoT edge computing. They feature integrated cooling, intelligent power distribution, and remote management in a protected, lockable enclosure that can also support a range of UPS systems depending on the capacity and degree of power conditioning required. The Vertiv™ SmartRow™ DCR provides similar capabilities for multi-rack systems.

For a more detailed look at the challenges of deploying IT equipment in industrial environments, read the Vertiv white paper, Enabling Computing in Harsh Environments: Infrastructure Considerations for Smart Manufacturing and Other IIoT Applications.

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