For many people, the Internet of Things (IoT) is synonymous with smart home automation, self-monitoring appliances, and connected security systems. However, some of the greatest potential of the IoT is in the industrial and manufacturing realm, where Industrial IoT (IIoT) has the promise to monitor systems for preventative maintenance and boost energy efficiency and workplace productivity.
However, successfully scaling from the smart home to the smart factory will require overcoming a number of technical challenges, as the systems adequate for automating household functions don’t necessarily have the resiliency required for industrial environments. IoT systems that operate in high-availability, mission-critical infrastructures will require industrial-strength reliability, security and control.
The growth of IIoT
New applications for the IIoT are developing, though many cluster around a handful of leading use cases. One of these is energy efficiency. As a real-life example of how the IIoT can deliver value, one of our customers has a manufacturing facility in a state that recently enacted a new 5 percent tax on electrical power consumption. This blew a million dollar hole in the company’s profit and loss statement because the higher energy costs had not been anticipated and forecasted in budgets. Factory managers were able to quickly deploy an IIoT smart power-monitoring system to strategically allocate power usage so that equipment only ran when needed. These more efficient processes drastically cut power usage, and helped heal the budget over-runs.
Preventative maintenance is another popular use case for IIoT. If a transmitter on a remote transmission tower unexpectedly stops functioning, it’s going to be very expensive to get a repair tech out there to fix it. A planned preventative maintenance system that monitors transmitter performance could have alerted maintenance teams to replace that transmitter in a more proactive and less costly way. Similarly, industries like oil and gas often have assets in remote, harsh and even dangerous environments. Automated process control and preventative maintenance can not only help companies save money, but also reduce danger to repair teams.
Sensor-based supply chain optimization and environmental sensing are other use cases where IIoT systems are providing significant benefits to industry.
Challenges of scaling IoT to industry
Generally speaking, the more data that an IoT system can gather, the more valuable the insights that it can generate: the larger the scale, the larger the benefit. This creates challenges for industrial IoT systems, which are almost by definition very large and complex. Balancing scale and complexity becomes a major hurdle as these systems expand to enterprise size.
Industrial IoT requirements are far more stringent than those for the consumer market, as they must operate in high-availability environments that require resilience, weapons-grade security, easy scalability and management controls. To enable the design and reliability of these networks demands access to components and technologies designed for these mission-critical systems.
Not only must the components in these networks be engineered for high performance and reliability, these systems present other challenges, such as the complexities of implementing wireless protocols at scale and networking edge devices and sensors with gateways and the cloud. Connecting all IIoT devices within a network using WiFi, Bluetooth and sub-GHz connectivity is not easy and will represent a serious challenge to companies with limited expertise in wireless technology. The good news is that component manufacturers now offer a range of pre-certified radio-frequency (RF) modules that add wireless connectivity to any smart connected object.
Likewise, IoT systems can put tremendous pressure on a company’s underlying security solutions, as each IoT sensor and device represents an entry point for potential threats. To protect against cybercrime incursions may mean that your IIoT system will need to run in a segregated, isolated environment within your larger infrastructure to provide the right conditions for IoT devices and applications to run efficiently and securely.
Also slowing the progress of IIoT is the lack of standardized platforms. Currently, millions of devices operate on existing IIoT networks that were built on custom or proprietary technologies. Aggregating data from multiple platforms that employ disparate wired and wireless protocols is a major challenge. Creating products and standards that ensure security and interoperability from the device all the way to the cloud would help deliver on IIoT’s promise of increased productivity and efficiency.
Addressing these challenges requires something else that is in quite short supply at the moment: talented people with the right skill sets to drive innovation and help develop these complex systems, particularly for smaller businesses. To develop IIoT system designs and to run complex IIoT networks requires specific training and talents, and tech-savvy designers and engineers have a promising role to play in addressing this talent deficit.
Addressing IIoT opportunities in small and medium businesses
Because of the scale and complexity of these networks, it may seem that IIoT’s greatest potential benefactor would be the largest companies with the most robust IT budgets. However, that assumption ignores the fact that small and medium companies in areas such as manufacturing greatly outnumber large enterprises.
In 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 98 percent (247,961) of U.S. manufacturing firms had fewer than 500 employees. Seventy-five percent of these (187,862) had fewer than 20 employees. These very small companies represented over 44 percent of total U.S. manufacturing employment, and form a largely unaddressed market for advanced technologies such as the IIoT.
According to IoT Now magazine, whatever happens to small- and medium-sized manufacturers matters a great deal for the health of the entire sector “especially when it comes to the adoption of advanced technologies such as “Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies.”
As the IIoT market begins to standardize on preferred platforms and protocols, much of the complexity and ambiguity of designing and developing of these systems will diminish. This will open opportunities for independent engineers and small IT firms to address the burgeoning IIoT requirements of small and medium businesses.
For innovators in IIoT, distributors like Newark element14 are an indispensible source for technology components, services and solutions. Newark element14 can quickly deliver a broad range of products and support to designers and engineers as they move products from idea to design and on to market.
Community forums like Hackster.io and the element14 Community also provide a site where designers and engineers can engage with their peers to discuss IIoT challenges, share news about new products they use to make their lives easier, and explore hot trends. The topics discussed aren’t always technical. A designer with a great product idea may need to know how to develop an effective business or marketing plan, or learn about compliance laws in a specific industry. Community sites are a great place for a fledgling IIoT developer to find answers, inspiration and companionship. With over 500,000 registered users in the element14 Community, this is a great forum for finding support from people with similar interests, who are moving along the same path.