The idea of a smarter world where systems with sensors and local processing are connected to share information is taking hold in every single industry. These systems will be connected on a global scale with users and each other to help users make more informed decisions. Many labels have been given to this overarching idea, but the most ubiquitous is the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT includes everything from smart homes and mobile fitness devices, to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) with smart cities, smart factories, and the smart grid.
The IIoT can be characterized as a vast number of connected industrial systems that are communicating and coordinating their data analytics and actions to improve industrial performance and benefit society as a whole. By making machines smarter through local processing and communications, the IIoT could solve problems in ways that were previously inconceivable. But, as the saying goes, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” As innovation grows, so does the complexity, which makes the IIoT a challenge that no company can meet on its own.
This challenge becomes even more daunting and complex when comparing the requirements of the industrial Internet to those of the consumer Internet. Both involve connecting devices and systems all across the globe, but the IIoT adds stricter requirements to its local networks for latency, determinism, and bandwidth. When dealing with precision machines that can fail if timing is off by a millisecond, adhering to strict requirements becomes pivotal to the health and safety of the machine operators, the machines, and the business.
As the IIoT comes to fruition, a big change is in store for historical industrial systems, because systems management and security will be paramount. As massive networks of systems come online, these systems need to communicate with each other and with the enterprise, often over vast distances. Both the systems and the communications need to be secure, or millions of dollars worth of assets are put at risk. One example of the need for security is on the smart grid, which is on the leading edge of the IIoT. As information on the grid becomes more accessible, so does the damage a security breach can inflict.
In addition to being secure, IIoT systems need to be continually modified and maintained to meet ever-changing functionality and system-maintenance requirements. As more capabilities are added, new systems have to be tacked on to meet those needs. Soon, a tangled web of interconnected components starts to form. The new system must integrate not only with the original system but also all of the other systems. Imagine modifying and updating thousands or millions of systems located all over the world, some in remote locations.
The IIoT investment
Developing and deploying the systems that will make up the IIoT represents a massive investment for decades to come. The only way to meet the needs of today and tomorrow is not by predicting the future, but by deploying a network of systems flexible enough to evolve and adapt. The way forward involves a platform-based approach; a single flexible hardware architecture deployed across many applications removes a substantial amount of hardware complexity and makes each new problem primarily a software challenge. By investing in a cohesive hardware/software platform, all efforts surrounding security and updates can focus on a better solution that’s deployable across myriad applications.
The ongoing design of the IIoT represents a massive business and technology opportunity for all of us. Engineers and scientists are already implementing systems on the leading edge of the IIoT, but many things still need to be defined and much work needs to be done. Start focusing on a platform-based approach and become part of the IIoT generation by getting involved with bodies such as the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) to define the future and ensure that businesses are focused on innovation and not just integration.
Jamie Smith, director of embedded systems at National Instruments, is the global leader of product management and go-to-market strategies for the company’s industrial and embedded products. He has been recently recognized as a Top Embedded Innovator by Embedded Computing Design and received an R&D 100 Award. He is currently representing National Instruments as a voting member of the IIC. Jamie holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Physics from UC Santa Barbara and a Master’s in Applied Physics from Stanford University.