The term “Internet of Things” is in danger, certainly in our industry, from those who struggle to comprehend its (concededly vague) definition. It's emblazoned across a plethora of exhibition stands at any relevant shows, with marketing appearing to be driven more by the number of global searches than a real passion for the possibilities the technology provides.
Particularly in the embedded space, from our personal interests we've all been wooed by what is now coined the human Internet of Things (HIoT) in the guise of wireless fitness trackers and the like, but professionally we have struggled to find clear example applications for this technology to gain equivalent excitement from.
This is all about to change. Beyond the hype, what we're really interested in is the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Yes, productivity can be (marginally) improved by fitter employees, but this is minor relative to the benefits of true smart manufacturing.
The key difference, beyond the obvious I read beautifully summarized as IIoT “brownfield” vs HIoT “greenfield” – the former building on centuries of infrastructure, the latter necessitating fresh infrastructure deployed. The significant variations are essentially the same arguments as many a “commercial vs. industrial” solution debate.
IIoT products must by definition offer an industrial lifecycle; HIoT devices are often faddish and whimsical with consumers demanding functional and aesthetical upgrades well before even the suggestion of component driven obsolescence. Persuading Production Managers to risk any change in a tried and tested manufacturing environment will demand that long-term availability commitment from manufacturers.
Consumers today have smartened up to the importance of build quality, evidenced by the success of premium brands in all areas of the retail industry – but few will use any device for a long enough period to even experience what us embedded professionals would consider the bare minimum acceptable operational lifetime.
IIoT devices, as with all embedded technology will be deployed in a “fit and forget” approach, though with the advantages of “Industrie 4.0” (the integration of Internet connectivity to industrial machinery) they'll be able to self-diagnose and self-report any failure or servicing needs of attached machinery or indeed itself.
HIoT devices are likely to be on your wrist or in your pocket. IIoT devices, on the other hand, will find themselves in the very worst conditions known to man, those well known to today's embedded computing devices. Actually, due to their invariably more compact size, they're likely to find themselves located in even further inhospitable corners.
The reality that they're likely to be performing fundamentally mission-critical tasks places greater emphasis on their environmental versatility than ever before.
As HIoT experienced during its concept period, IIoT too struggles to gain the excitement it deserves through lack of real-world examples to adequately capture the imagination.
At the IHS Industrial Automation Conference this year, I was enthralled to hear Siemens' Dr. Dieter Wegener's vision of the connected and virtualized factory of the future made possible by IIoT.
His vision consists of a virtualized model of a manufacturing plant, though this is not just any 3D simulation that is available today. Dr. Wegener's virtual plant serves two purposes: training and management.
The virtual plant, with optional virtual employee, enables on-the-job training from the comfort and safety of an office chair, avoiding placing the employee (and others) in any danger from industrial machinery with the kind of real-life simulations typically only found for commandeering monstrous vehicles.
The management aspect enthused me yet further. The ability to have a live virtualized representation of your manufacturing plant, an exact mirror of your real world factory floor – made possible through universally connected peer-to-peer IIoT devices – enables true smart manufacturing and a level of autonomy that is currently a pipe dream.
These visions patently require significant capital investment so they may only be within the reach of the largest manufacturers today. For me, the wider recognition of the contribution embedded computing has made to efficient manufacturing for years makes the future of IIoT exciting. But the challenge of IIoT, beyond the obvious of managing security, is convincing those below that top tier to make that investment today for tomorrow's benefit.