Where Will Process Historians Fit in the Modern Industrial Technology Stack?

When Rolls Royce Power Systems recently needed to improve its operational efficiency within its manufacturing plants, it didn’t expand its use of a legacy process historian or purchase historian connectors to export data to their business intelligence systems. Instead, it decided to go with a modern time series database, InfluxDB.

Graphite Energy, another customer we featured in our recent IIoT announcement, also chose InfluxDB over the legacy process historian vendors. Why? It was simply a better value to monitor and optimize its zero-emissions energy platform.

These are just two recent examples of this trend. Going a bit further back, Ausgrid, the organization that owns, maintains, and operates the electrical networks in Sydney, the Central Coast, and Hunter regions of New South Wales, Australia, selected InfluxDB over the OSIsoft Pi System for storing and analyzing information from tens of thousands of distributed smart cities devices. Its reasoning? Faster time to install, faster time to implement, and faster time to value. We like to call the combination of these “Faster Time to Awesome,” and it fits here. Ausgrid’s performance testing suggested nearly 4000x better query performance than the Pi System for complex, multi-sensor use cases.

So what has changed? Legacy process historians used to be a “must-have” for any critical industrial operation. Open-source software and cloud services were unwelcome just ten years ago, but it now looks as if these technologies may disrupt the old-guard vendors, even as they scramble to keep up. Here are just a few of the reasons we are seeing this shift:

Silos are collapsing

It was an easy if misleading story to tell – the big industrial software companies made the machines. Therefore, their software was the only responsible and safe way to interact with them. Historians came bundled with the assets and automation applications, usually selected by the design-build engineering firms long before the end-users could give input. Like the grade of concrete or the piping schedule, certain technologies became part of the boilerplate, with no consideration of the future needs of the customer or operator. This selection process was truly a one-size-fits-all approach, and organizations found themselves locked into the standards and vendor contracts.

Over the last decade, these standard technology stacks have begun to show cracks. First were the cracks created by interoperability standards, like OPC-UA. Many third-party applications have used these standards to connect newer, modern, and cost-effective solutions. Kepware Technologies KepServerEX is a great example of this, now owned by PTC (one of our premier IIoT partners). Kepware built inexpensive software that could run on commodity hardware and bridge the gap between the legacy industrial protocols and OPC-UA. Over time, this evolved into other interfaces like HTTP and MQTT. Now, any organization can securely capture data from their industrial assets in real-time and send it to a platform like InfluxDB. Customers remark again and again that it “just works.” This new stack does not introduce artificial or unnecessary obstacles to pilots or production, a total paradigm shift for industry. Self-service data pipelines are now a reality.

The disruption started by Kepware directly led to similar approaches from new platforms like the HighByte Intelligence Hub, the Akenza IoT Platform, Losant, and Cogent Data Hubs. In addition, the more forward-looking of the established industrial software vendors like Siemens, Bosch, Rockwell, Schneider and PTC also collaborate with InfluxData to bring the InfluxDB time series database to their platforms and customers. These efforts ultimately provide a more powerful and cost-effective solution than existing options.

The workforce is evolving

A 2019 research study by the Manufacturing Institute, partnered with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, identified several concerning findings related to the aging workforce in US manufacturing.

With the median age of manufacturing workers approaching 45, it is clear that there are a high number of near-retirement operators in the workforce. However, those older workers are quickly joined by younger workers who are truly “digital natives.” This new generation of operators, analysts, and engineers is tech-savvy and obstacle-adverse. To them, an instruction manual is a troubleshooting tool, and technologies that are intuitive, powerful, and, most importantly, stimulating are the ones that grab their attention. With few exceptions, the legacy process historians appear more like a rotary phone or typewriter than a piece of modern technology to them. As the Manufacturing Institute study shows, a combination of apprenticeship and adaptation is the best way to navigate the generational change. This approach presents the perfect opportunity for any industrial organization to prioritize technology modernization projects. It’s a special surprise when the newer technologies turn out to be more cost-effective as well.

The new world is one of microservices, edge and cloud hybrid networks, and access-anywhere information users can consume through new interactions and user interfaces. This is the technology landscape into which millennial makers, developers and engineers were born. It is where they learned the basics, innovated, and it’s where and how they are building their own successful companies. As a result, we see fundamental changes and accommodations coming within industrial sectors to put this new generation in their element, and 40-year-old software isn’t the answer.

A new mindset is emerging

The emergence of new, open-source technology stacks designed specifically for industrial operations is a telltale sign of an important change in mindset. Consider, for example, the Libre Stack – a fast, flexible, infinitely scalable data hub for manufacturing. Libre is “revolutionizing the industry with the world’s only completely open Manufacturing Operating System.”

Libre believes that their platform disrupts the legacy hybrid MES/Historian applications by taking novel approaches to data governance, platform extensibility, open-source and open standards. It provides a truly scalable, microservices-based platform for data collection, analytics, application building, and API-first access, all incredibly novel approaches that fly in the face of previous solutions. With an active Discord community, tight interlock with the Industry 4.0 online community, Docker and Kubernetes support, and regular commits on GitHub, this type of vendor-agnostic, capabilities-focused community presents novel and serious competition to the technology and business models of the legacy process historian.

The team behind Libre chose InfluxDB as the historian component for the platform. According to Geoff Nunan, Chief Technology Officer at Libre Technologies, “The one word that defines success in Industrial IoT for many companies is Agility. Being able to look at a new problem, explore a new angle or prove a new concept fast. Competitive advantage is often found in shortening the time-to-market for new products. InfluxData lives their “Time to Awesome” vision, and that’s why we chose InfluxDB as the time series database behind the Libre Manufacturing platform.”

The times are truly changing.