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Thursday Podcast – Interview with MSITec on Robotics and the Future of IoT and IIoT

This week we were lucky enough to have an opportunity to sit down with MSITec to talk robotics, IoT, and industrial automation. If you’ve been dying to check out some of the real-world applications of IoT, look no further than their demo with a Baxter Robot with UC-8100 and InduSoft Web Studio.

In this podcast we have with us:

  • Mike Barrett, Vice President of MSITec
  • Joel Moser, Robotics Product Manager
  • James Turner, Application Engineer
  • Aaron Monroe, Field Automation Engineer
  • Marcia Gadbois, President of InduSoft


We’ve provided a shortened transcript of the podcast, but we encourage you to listen to the full interview for more!

Q: Who Is MSITec?

MSITec is an automation solutions provider and we provide technologies to OEM and end user customers that are looking to solve problems with machines or factory automation, or trying to automate processes. Some of the technologies we are involved with are precision motion control, sensing, industrial computing and networking, remote monitoring, robotics, pneumatics, software development, and a few divisions specializing in adding value to off-the-shelf products.

Q: And how long has MSITec been around? Let’s hear a bit more about your experience in the industry.

MSITec was formed in October of 2001. We have grown to 33 associates in the Denver, Colorado area, as well as Phoenix, Arizona, and Irvine, California.

Q: And you offer solutions in Food and Beverage, Water and Water and others, correct?

Yes, and the energy sector, packaging, semiconductor, oil and gas, and more.

Q: We have a wealth of background expertise in this room, so we are looking forward to hearing your answers. Tell us a bit more about the demo (posted above). It involves Robotics, IIoT, and was really a fascinating demo. What made you decide to build it, and is this something that customers are now requesting?

Mike: The reason we did it is because MSITec is starting to see the rapid acceptance of the IoT and IIoT technologies as well as collaborative robotics. We saw the need to try to combine those two as emerging technologies and we have customers who have expressed interest in these technologies, if not necessarily by the buzzwords used today. Customers who are interested in collaborative robots also need to get their information or data to a location where they can make their decisions on production.  Putting them together and being able to demonstrate them as a uniform concept is useful for the marketplace.

Q: So let’s define what a Collaborative Robot is, and what IIoT is for those who don’t know.

Joel: Collaborative robots can be defined a few ways, but for today and for the demo, we are talking about robots that are power and force limited, so they are inherently safe by design. You can put them next to a human being without having to have a guard or safety cage. These are robots that are meant to do human-like tasks at a human-like cadence safely, next to people.

James: To understand IIoT we have to understand IoT, which is the Internet of Things, which is the idea that devices can be internet and network connected – something as simple as a switch or a lightbulb, or a media player. These simple devices can be connected to the internet with I/O points. Thermostats in houses are now a common example of IoT. But the Industrial Internet of Things takes that a step further and explores data acquisition and control of the same small devices. It’s the ability to get information from, say, a collaborative robot, and put the information where it can be collected and aggregated and used to make business decisions based on productivity.

Where I think our customers receive the benefit is that we can not only provide an IIoT solution for them, but we can also provide the keys for system integrators to remotely program or remotely access those collaborative robots.

Q: Are your customers beginning to ask for solutions for IIoT and collaborative robots, and if so, what industries are you seeing it in?

Mike: They’re asking for the solutions, but not necessarily by name. They understand that the ability to gather data remotely and access machines remotely and analyze that data and make decisions on it is now readily available, where before it was difficult or prohibitively expensive. But now we can make it accessible to customers in a way that is useful to them.

Energy and specifically renewables is one industry that has been especially forward-thinking and is getting involved in IIoT and asking for it. Oil and gas is another area.

Q: How do you envision the HMI bridging communication between the human and the collaborative robot?

Joel: I do see HMI playing a role with collaborative robots, but it’s a little different than what we’re used to. If you look at a traditional work cell, it’s very stationary. Everything is bolted to the floor and it’s probably behind hard guarding. In a work cell like that, there are obvious places to put an operator panel type HMI, and they work together very well. With a collaborative robot, these robots are meant for high mix/low volume small to medium enterprises, so they might very well be working in one part of the shop in the morning, and another part of the shop in the afternoons. They’re very mobile. So now it’s a physically different dynamic for the HMI, and it’s necessary to use more mobile options like a tablet. Not just physically mobile, but the idea that the actual task may change also necessitates being able to make changes to the application dynamically. In a traditional HMI, you hard-code the application and it can be fairly limited, but with our new applications, they’re browser based and can be adjusted more easily to allow for more mobile dynamics.

Q: When it comes to collaborative robots, are you seeing demand from all sectors, or just small to mid-sized enterprises?

Mike: It’s not just the small to mid-sized groups anymore. Now even the large traditional robot users are very interested in collaborative robots. The advantages of collaborative robots can be enjoyed by any size company, like the lower costs and ease of repurposing.

Q: If we look into IIoT, what specific applications are you seeing customers asking for?

I would say that they’re all over the map. We see demand in all different faces, from remotely accessing machines to energy management to dashboard applications. But even with a remote connection, by creating a gateway connection to their machine, you’re effectively creating an IIoT gateway connection that enables them to connect to their machine remotely, where before they wouldn’t have been able to do it. One of the crucial areas that people are really beginning to talk about is security.

Q: How are you educating customers about that?

James: One of the ways that we’ve done well to help educate the customers is having classes, and helping them understand the technologies as we use them. Despite the fact that Ethernet and cellular and VPN technologies have been around for a while, we still have engineers who are still learning these things. These can be new concepts to them. But they have the same concerns. They didn’t have to worry about securing their serial Bus before, but now as we move to remote connectivity we have to be able to educate the customer to understand the security protocols in place and how the mechanics of the security protocols work, whether it’s via VPN models or any other transport layer security.

For other applications we give them a demonstration of what the system is doing mechanically so they can see how the certificate authentication works on HTTPS, or how the encryption and authentication works for an open VPN connection.

MSITec has developed a series of courses designed to take engineers and teach them IT concepts.

Q: If you had one piece of advice for a customer interested in the Industrial Internet of Things or in collaborative robots, what would it be? Where should they start?

Well, they can start here! In all seriousness, I feel that we’re a great resource for people to reach out to, and it may not be a fit for what we specifically do, but we have a good array of experience here, and a wealth of information to educate people on IIoT.

Q: How do you predict industrial automation will change in the next ten years?

Joel: One of the things I think about is the consumer goods market, and how they lead the industrial automation market. For example, when I got started with this in 1998, we had well connected offices with Ethernet, and yet we had years before motion controllers even had an Ethernet port on them. Fast forwarding to now, we have thermostats and garage door openers, and even cars that are internet-ready, but we’re not quite there yet in terms of industrial components. I think in ten years we definitely will be there. Down to the component level, whether it’s a sensor or a pneumatic valve, I think those devices are going to be able to tell you via text message that they need preventative maintenance, or just hit 1000 cycles and need to be replaced.

Another thing is demographics. In ten years, think of how many Baby Boomers will have retired, and how many Millennials will have not only entered the market, but are moving up the corporate ladder. This is the generation that grew up with tablets and smartphones and has only ever known complete connectivity. There will be an expectation for everything to be connected.

Q: Based on that, what will customers be expecting from HMI/SCADA providers in the next few years?

Mike: Absolutely mobility. You guys (InduSoft) have been leading the charge on that for the past few years, and have been web enabled for so long. Continuing down that path of mobility that is easy to access and deploy will be important.

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