Jennifer Lachky-Busch, 15.02.2024, 9 min.

Security is the main challenge in IIoT

  1. How has the use of IIoT solutions changed in recent years?
  2. Why does IoT security play such a central role?
  3. What factors make IoT projects so complex?
  4. What challenges can be anticipated in advance during a changeover?
  5. How can classic mistakes be avoided in this process?
  6. How does the kontron susietec® toolset enable perfectly tailored solutions?
  7. How can IoT solutions be optimized for long lifecycles?
  8. Why is 5G functionality on the rise as a key trend?
  9. Conclusion: Long-term success with experienced system partners 

IIoT projects are often highly complex. Issues such as "security over long lifecycles" or "international mobile network coverage" in particular pose a variety of hurdles.

In this interview, Holger Wußmann, Managing Director of Kontron Electronics GmbH, explains how we, as an experienced system partner in this dynamic field, help to avoid costly mistakes and develop future-proof, cost-effective solutions. 

Geschäftsführer der Kontron Electronics GmbH, Holger Wußmann

How has the use of IIoT solutions changed in recent years?

The demand for IIoT applications has increased steadily in recent years, according to a study by the Eclipse Foundation. According to the study, just over half of companies are already using IoT solutions, and around a quarter intend to introduce them within the next one to two years. Many companies have therefore already recognized that they can do more than just accelerate and automate processes on the basis of AI, IoT, cloud and edge computing. New digital business models in particular rely on operating and maintenance data flowing back to the manufacturer during the product life cycle. IIoT solutions are the basis for this. However, there are no off-the-shelf solutions here. There are also several typical challenges. Whether for remote services or preventive maintenance, it must always be ensured that software updates can be installed remotely and, for example, that secure access to machines is enabled to prevent customers' networks from being made vulnerable by their own products. 

Why does IoT security play such a central role?

All devices and their operating systems must be kept secure and up-to-date over the entire life cycle of an application - i.e. ten to twenty years. This includes being able to install security patches regularly and, in an emergency, out of sequence. Up to now, many things in the IoT sector have been tried out in proofs of concept, with security not always being a priority. However, legislators have made adjustments in light of the cyber threat situation. The EU Network and Information Systems Act Directive - NIS2 for short - defines minimum cybersecurity standards for critical infrastructures in the EU and applies to many companies with 50 employees or more and a turnover of ten million euros.

Cyber Security

It is important to ensure that a device is not compromised and cannot be misused as part of a botnet or become a gateway into a company network. To achieve this, all components must be secured, including IoT gateways and edge computers. The decisive factor here is a secure operating system such as KontronOS. Many companies have not yet adapted to this challenge - so it is to be expected that there will be a rude awakening, similar to the start of the GDPR. 

What factors make IoT projects so complex?

IoT projects generally involve a completely different level of complexity than was previously the case with electronics projects. It often exceeds the previous experience of user companies, which now have to deal with the potential applications of technologies such as AI, edge and cloud. It is no longer about which features a control system has, but about the potential of what can be achieved with a solution. It's about looking at entire business models that can have an impact on large parts of the company.

In most cases, specifically adapted electronic components and closely coordinated interaction between hardware and software are required. Software, service, system consulting and expertise come to the fore in these projects. Kontron has deliberately evolved from an electronics provider to an IIoT provider in order to be able to offer customers holistic solutions: Starting with a solid analysis and system consulting through to the update service for KontronOS over the entire life cycle. 

What challenges can be anticipated in advance during a changeover?

The maintenance and servicing of a large number of IoT devices distributed internationally in the field involves considerable effort. Many companies want this service as it is not part of their core business. However, it all starts with sound system consulting when defining a digital business model. It must be possible to anticipate all challenges in advance based on broad project experience. 

One example is the implementation of a new business model at a dairy company. Together with Kontron, a catering machine was developed that produces perfect milk foam from small milk concentrate containers in bag-in-box format. Remote diagnostics in the field are of course standard, and further new functions have been developed, for example based on integrated RFID technology. When the concentrate runs out, the machines can automatically order replenishment. An international business case that has already proved successful: The company's aim is to bring as many appliances as possible into the field and thus place milk sales permanently with catering businesses. 

How can classic errors be avoided in this process?

With such a use case, many questions need to be asked and answered when selecting the components: 

  • Where are the devices typically located? 
  • Are there settings in which there is no mobile phone connection, i.e. where offline capability is required? 
  • In which regions should devices be sold? Only in the EU or also in other countries? 

Special approvals are required in each case. There is also the question of how the chosen mobile communications partner is positioned. Does it have roaming partners in the other target countries? Are restaurants allowed to use their local SIM cards or should this not be possible so that the provider retains the lead here? What exactly do you want to offer the customer in terms of functionality?

These questions already show that there are a number of stumbling blocks that need to be cleared out of the way in advance to ensure that an IoT solution works securely in the long term and that the end devices always remain accessible. In many environments, such as hospitals or airports, connectivity issues also need to be considered, for example when it comes to locating devices on beds, wheelchairs or conveyor vehicles via Wi-Fi, radio or Bluetooth. The practical experience of the electronics provider is also essential here.

How does the kontron susietec®® toolset enable perfectly tailored solutions?

With the kontron susietec®® toolset, Kontron offers a toolbox of hardware, software and extensive expertise. 

As a rule, IoT projects start with a proof of concept (PoC) in order to verify the solution concept with as little effort as possible. Kontron offers standard products for this purpose. 

It is important that the system supplier can offer a range of products and services with which a PoC can be implemented very quickly on the one hand and a cost-effective series solution can then be brought into the field of application on the other.  Depending on the planned quantities, it is often a question of price as well as computing power. Only rarely does a finished product fit the bill, as the respective requirements in IoT projects vary greatly: for example, can a networked device that is located outdoors be powered by a battery supply that is charged using solar energy or does it require a different energy supply?

It is therefore often a matter of developing an individual device that is tailored to the use case. In this way, control and IoT functions can be integrated in an application-specific module in an optimized way. The initial effort for necessary software porting is usually low, as existing software packages and applications such as KontronOS or EquipmentCloud® can be used. Thanks to the close coupling of hardware and software development, both worlds are consistently aligned with each other in order to keep development costs as low as possible, even for individual solutions. The software toolset covers topics such as device management, remoting and edge computing, as well as AI, analytics and data management for the easy development of apps.  

How can IoT solutions be optimized for long lifecycles?

As machines are usually in use for 20 years and often have a second life after that, IoT solutions also have to withstand these periods of time. Meanwhile, mobile communications standards and protocols change, for example from 2G to 4G. This means that both hardware and software, as well as the mobile network connection, must be kept up to date throughout the life cycle. For the hardware of the devices, Kontron relies on components that are available in the long term. By using open standards such as OSM, SMARC or COM-HPC, standardized interfaces are available through which, for example, discontinued processors or CPU boards can be easily replaced.

The fact that IIoT has not already become much more established in practice is due in particular to the hurdle of providing a secure operating system throughout the life cycle. In order to achieve independence from individual solutions or providers, the open source operating system Linux is often used. However, this must be specially adapted to the security requirements of IIoT applications and then kept up to date.

In many cases, mobile connectivity is crucial for IoT projects.

Another dimension often comes into play in IoT projects - that of mobile communications. Many IoT projects are created in the context of mobile devices and units. In addition to locating the device via GPS, wireless communication, usually via mobile radio, is also necessary. Every IoT device must also be managed from a mobile communications perspective. Providers usually make web portals available for this purpose. Is the device online, what data volumes can be used, has the bill been paid? Regardless of the communication channel, device management is another aspect that ensures that every device remains secure and is supplied with the latest updates. The secure operating system is a particular focus alongside the application software. Kontron offers the update service for security patches in conjunction with the web-based EquipmentCloud® platform. As you can see, many different disciplines and technical experts have to come together in order to combine the multitude of technologies and tools in a suitable way and establish a smoothly functioning overall solution.

A generalist like Kontron can solve many problems in this context or avoid them in advance with its expertise from different specialist areas and its network of specialists. For user companies from the mechanical and plant engineering sector, for example, it is difficult to identify all the necessary partners in the first place and then coordinate them in the project. If something is overlooked here and the IoT devices are already distributed around the world, massive costs can arise.

Why is 5G functionality on the rise as a key trend?

It is now becoming apparent that the trend in the industrial environment is moving towards 5G as the successor to Wi-Fi, as 5G technology leads to significantly lower installation costs. Due to the significantly better range, considerably fewer end devices are required. In addition, the TSN protocol (Time-Sensitive Networking) is already included in 5G: a precondition for real-time control of production processes. With the Cellular Automotive Module Unit from Telit Cinterion, the Kontron Group now also includes a mobile radio component manufacturer, which means that Kontron can draw on its own radio modules and contribute valuable expertise in the field of mobile devices. Depending on the use case - from the transmission of small amounts of data via NarrowBand IoT to the real-time control of autonomous industrial trucks in production via 5G - everything related to IIoT can be implemented from a single source. 

Conclusion: Long-term success with experienced system partners

The transformation of at least parts of business models to IIoT solutions is necessary for companies today - as the trends show - in order to maintain their own competitiveness. However, this is not a one-off step. Rather, it is an ongoing and dynamic process because requirements, environmental conditions and technologies are changing rapidly. In this dynamic process, there are many potential stumbling blocks and challenges that need to be taken into account. In order for this to succeed professionally, companies need an experienced system partner like Kontron for the transformation on the one hand and for operations on the other, who is available as a generalist with knowledge, products and system expertise for IIoT applications. It will help you to successfully prepare your company for technical and regulatory requirements and subsequent changes by providing holistic solutions.

About the author

As Portfolio Manager IoT, Jennifer Lachky-Busch has been responsible for the strategic development and marketing of the kontron susietec® toolset since 2021. On the susietec® blog she deals with current trends, informs about product news and answers exciting questions around the topics IIoT and Industry 4.0.

Jennifer Lachky-Busch Portfolio Manager