Towards a seamless integration of the physical and virtual worlds

Towards a seamless integration of the physical and virtual worlds
By Norbert Aschenbrenner / Frank Krull, Siemens

Our day-to-day lives are being filled with more and more devices that let users find out the status of an object via the Internet or the Cloud. Examples of this trend include fitness-trackers, sensors that monitor plants’ moisture levels, and houses that learn to set their heat and lighting to f

it their residents’ living patterns. As this process evolves, it is realistic to expect that eventually every “thing” will be equipped with an Internet address, thus opening up whole new ways to interact with those “things.”

This paradigm of the Internet of Things (IoT) opens up immense opportunities for Siemens. After all, Siemens is a major player in combining hardware and software – for example, in automation solutions for production, in rail and traffic management systems, and in the decentralized delivery of electric power.

All the same, factories, traffic networks and utility grids are a good deal more complex than smartphones and fitness tracker. All are examples of real and virtual systems that have been intermeshed and that often even involve critical infrastructures. Customers in such critical areas have entirely different expectations about safety, reliability and durability than those purchasing a smart thermostat or plant moisture tracking system. What’s more, such customers want to enrich their existing equipment through the advantages of the evolving digital universe without endangering or sacrificing either data protection or intellectual property.

That’s why Siemens has expanded the concept of the Internet of Things for industrial applications to create the Web of Systems, meaning systems that are digital, communicate with each other, and can act autonomously. Siemens’ vision is that as this ecosystem takes shape its elements will be managed via future Web technologies that use standardized protocols and languages of the kind that are used for the Internet today.

This linking up of the real world and the virtual world of data offers multiple advantages for Siemens customers. It enables them to capture and analyze the current status of a system and its parts anytime, in detail. This in turn yields immense opportunities for savings through predictive maintenance, as well as major potential for optimizing systems. Using today’s technologies from the World Wide Web environment, systems can often be implemented and commissioned faster and more economically. A system’s intelligence can be distributed as needed between real components and virtual systems in the Cloud, resulting in enhanced robustness and customer data protection.

Finally, as the digital landscape is transformed along these lines, it will become easier to update systems with new functions, or to update system software on the fly, in much the same way as smartphones and other devices are updated through apps.







Why Smart Grids Need Distribution Transformers

One of many examples where our Web of Systems offers advantages is smart grids. Until just a few years ago, electric power grids were organized in a strict hierarchy. But today they’ve become decentralized systems. Photovoltaic installations and other renewable energy sources feed electricity into the grid on an unregulated, fluctuating basis, at voltage levels that used to apply only to consumers, not generators. In a worst-case scenario, that can make a grid unstable.

So grids have to be given the ability to counteract that shifting environment. One component here is distribution transformers that can adjust independently and cooperatively to smooth out voltage fluctuations within their local areas. But for that they need their own intelligence and communication capability – in other words, they need to be “smart” and networked. And this is where one important difference from the typical Internet of Things scenario comes in. The Internet of Things is connected to the Cloud, and the Cloud is where the data – for example from the equipment’s sensors – is primarily processed. Response times and reliability are often a secondary priority. But in a Web of Systems, things themselves have intelligence. They can respond locally, fast, and reliably, while at the same time drawing on the power of the Cloud for optimization.

How to Keep a Secret

In order to realize the vision of a Web of Systems, associated software has to be able to understand the data, so it can derive intelligent conclusions from it. And that’s possible only if information that describes the data’s meaning is either already present or supplied alongside it. Human experts can respond to this kind of challenge because they understand the context in which data is embedded. But software has to be told the context explicitly. Yet that context includes important information about the system in question and its associated processes, which in many cases are valuable business secrets that an operator would be very unwilling to deliver unfiltered into the Cloud. In view of this, it is better if machines can draw conclusions themselves, locally, so that the context remains protected. With regard to distribution transformers, for instance, they can assess independently whether to smooth out a critical grid state or whether they will need help from a higher level, thus ensuring a high level of data protection by restricting secrets to local systems.

Although localized, this information can nevertheless be used to generate value – for example by using predictive maintenance or developing new services. To make use of this and other data from industrial systems, trains or gas turbines, Siemens relies on Sinalytics. This is a new platform for industrial data analysis that makes it possible to offer new digital services to every customer. Sinalytics processes data from many different distributed systems and their sensors in real time and also supports local data processing directly in devices.


The Road to Self-Stabilizing Grids

Another advantage of the Web of Systems approach is that it opens the door to a platform approach in which functions can be distributed and installed like apps, and run in much the same way. For example, services can easily be distributed that make the systems environment more attractive not just for Siemens, but for its customers and even their own customers. In such an environment, a distribution transformer could, for instance, run applications for energy-efficient management of neighborhood street lighting. When an update is due or a new function is needed, the software can be uploaded remotely.

The smart distribution transformer – a new Siemens development – is already being used in practice for voltage regulation in the low-voltage grid, and is thus a key part of a future system known as an intelligent secondary substation node (iSSN). With its computing power and optional communication connection, the iSSN will provide the possibility for far more than supplying households with the right voltage. It will enable the power grid to cope with additional feed-ins or loads with no need for massive infrastructure expansions.

This iSSN is currently being developed further in the context of the Web of Systems project. Its Web connection, for example, will make it significantly easier to commission, maintain, and update it. And each such substation will supply a wealth of data that will make it possible to identify potentially destabilizing grid conditions, thus providing an important additional tool for predictive power grid planning.

But a distribution transformer doesn't add up to a Web of Systems all by itself. The other components in the electric network – meters, building distribution systems, photovoltaic systems, electric cars – must also be equipped with sensors, local intelligence, and the ability to communicate. That is already becoming the case. For Siemens, that means new opportunities in virtually every one of the sectors in which it does business.

Webs of Systems that are already Operational

Siemens is already using Webs of Systems to implement solutions that used to involve a great deal of engineering or installation work. One example is the electric bus charging system that Siemens has installed in a number of European cities. Here, everything from bus electronics and fast charging stations to the management backend systems communicate over the Web in order to coordinate and optimize the charging process.

Another example is the optimization of water distribution networks with a sensor network that detects leaks and minimizes pumps’ energy consumption. An important point here is that data integration is taking place in the context of existing control systems. Siemens is looking at similar situations in many other existing installations. The reason for this is clear: customers want the reliability and flexibility that are the hallmarks of advanced digital systems. The Web of Systems can be the essential key to opening up these benefits.

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