How to Handle the Challenge of Multiple Systems With Diverse Protocols

Industrial Edge Computing, Industrie 4.0 Implementation

How to Handle the Challenge of Multiple Systems With Diverse Protocols

15 Oct, 2020

This article will discuss:

  • The challenges of synchronizing legacy systems with modern networks.
  • The challenges that come with having multiple systems with diverse communication protocols on the factory floor when implementing Industrie 4.0 models.
  • How enterprises can manage the challenges associated with multiple protocols during Industrie 4.0 implementations.

The ongoing digital transformation occurring in the industrial space comes with excellent benefits which have been popularized through print and digital media to much fanfare. With so much emphasis on the benefits Industrie 4.0 implementation brings to the factory floor and operations, the real-world challenges associated with digital transformations are commonly overlooked.


Legacy systems and Industrie 4.0 implementation

Legacy systems are still playing important roles in factory operations. Today, approximately 90% of factories rely on legacy assets to accomplish diverse tasks. In situations where multiple legacy assets are used, the system and communication protocols in place are usually varied. The diverse protocols exist within these systems because collaborative initiatives such as the OPC Foundation came into existence in the early 90s while legacy systems have been around for three or four decades or even more.

Enterprises implementing Industrie 4.0 generally find that diverse protocols and lack of new communication technology are stumbling blocks which need to be overcome. Thankfully, multiple solutions to the challenge of diverse protocols in legacy systems exist. These solutions include:

  • OPC Foundation Unified Architecture (OPC UA) – Unifying legacy machine-to-machine communication requires an open framework that supports industrial equipment and systems. OPC UA offers the cross-platform support and services required to develop an interconnected cyber-physical environment consisting of legacy assets with diverse proprietary systems. The OPC Foundation offers servers and hardware custom made to support communication across the factory floor.
  • Edge computing – Today, edge computing has emerged as the most comprehensive answer to the challenges and questions multiple systems with diverse protocols bring. The ability to bring low-latency computing directly to the factory floor without having to rely on a centralized computing platform creates diverse-application use cases for Industrie 4.0 implementations. In the case of multiple legacy systems with diverse protocols, edge hardware has an important role to play.
    Edge hardware refers to hardware with computing resources that can be used to capture data, process data, or facilitate the transfer of data. So, edge hardware such as human-machine interface (HMI) devices with support for industrial equipment with analog systems can be plugged into legacy assets. The HMI then serves as the communication endpoint for the legacy equipment. The HMI can be configured to transfer data, collect data, or connect the equipment to existing networks. The power of the edge can also be found in its ability to bridge the gap between cloud computing and the deepest part of the factory floor. Edge devices bring low-latency computing at the factory-floor level while having the ability to send and receive data from the cloud. The collaboration edge devices enable, makes it possible for edge devices to serve as a conduit for transferring information from the cloud to legacy systems.


Industrie 4.0 implementation in brownfield facilities with multiple systems

Although the drive for unified architecture when implementing Industrie 4.0 has been active for a few decades, vendors within the Industrie 4.0 space still develop proprietary equipment and systems for end-users. Multiple vendors with diverse equipment, systems, and protocols lead to challenges when creating an interconnected factory floor.

To handle the difficulties that modern equipment and automated systems such as a material handling system bring when implementing Industrie 4.0, factory owners are turning to edge computing. In brownfield facilities, edge computing makes it possible to extend the network of interconnected cyber-physical systems in diverse ways. In the case of brownfield facilities, industrial edge platforms have more important roles to play compared to edge hardware. Modern equipment options are generally equipped with communication features such as wireless capabilities, which means plugging them directly into a centralized industrial edge or cloud platform if possible.

Modern industrial equipment such as computer numerical control (CNC) machines can be viewed as edge devices due to their ability to capture, process, and transfer data. So, Industrie 4.0 implementations in brownfield facilities are generally used for predictive maintenance and data-driven optimization tasks. To accomplish these facility-wide optimization processes, a larger computing platform with the capacity to collect and process infinite factory-floor data from diverse equipment is required. OPC UA provides the unifying communication framework while edge platforms provide centralized computing resources for complex data analytics.

In factories with both modern and legacy assets, edge computing also provides a pathway for unifying these systems with diverse protocols. Within these factories, rewiring legacy systems is generally shunned due to the high expense of the process and the technological limitations of the legacy assets working in tandem with modern equipment. Edge hardware can be deployed to expand the cyber-physical network and create an interconnected environment by connecting both the modern and legacy equipment to the facility-wide network. The versatility edge computing brings to Industrie 4.0 implementation is the reason why industrial enterprises are expected to spend approximately 30% of IT budgets on the edge in the next three years.



Edge computing is the future of Industrie 4.0 implementations, as it supports low-latency computing at the deepest parts of the factory floor and for legacy equipment. The cost of replacing legacy equipment and bridging the skills gap after purchasing new equipment is a stumbling block for many enterprises. The use of edge hardware will reduce these costs, align systems with diverse protocols, and support near real-time industrial automation – thus bringing the benefits of Industrie 4.0 to the factory floor.


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