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Connecting the unconnected with the internet of things

The basics.

The internet of things (IoT) – the embedding of physical devices with sensors, network connectivity and other components so they can collect and exchange data – is often presented as a revolution, but it is actually an evolution of technologies developed more than 15 years ago. During the last decade, sensor costs declined twofold, bandwidth costs fell by a multiple of 40 and processing costs dropped by a multiple of 60. The plummeting costs of sensing technologies, enhanced computing power, advances in data connectivity in the cloud and machine-tomachine communication are combining to drive the convergence of previously separate production technologies – IT, operations technology (OT) and automation technology (AT) – to create the future of production, expanded from the factory floor to connected products, services and supply chains – the industrial internet of things (IoT). IoT platforms are still evolving and there are no clear winners in this space. Rival technology companies creating competing platforms are targeting many industrial sectors.

Use in production.

Proponents of IoT highlight its potential to revolutionize production, not only by transforming operations on the shop floor, but also by enabling end-toend visibility across the supply chain in real time, all the way to the end user, as well as developing new products and services to customers. IoT investment in production is expected to double from $35 billion to $71 billion by 2020, with three key functions driving investments: asset tracking, condition-based maintenance and robotics processing. North America leads today’s IoT adoption. However, the Asia-Pacific region is projected to have a larger market share by 2020 (in excess of $2.5 trillion). IoT has three distinct uses in today’s production systems:

-Smart enterprise control: IoT technologies enable tight integration of smart connected machines and smart connected manufacturing assets with the wider enterprise. This facilitates more flexible and efficient, and hence profitable, production. Smart enterprise control can be viewed as a mid-to long-term trend. It is complex to implement and will require the creation of new standards to enable the convergence of IT and OT systems.

– Asset performance management: Deployment of cost-effective wireless sensors, easy cloud connectivity (including wide area network or WAN) and data analytics improves asset performance. These tools allow data to be gathered easily from the field and converted into actionable information in real time. The expected result will be better business decisions and forward-looking decision-making processes.

– Augmented operators: Future employees will use mobile devices, data analytics, augmented reality and transparent connectivity to increase productivity. As fewer skilled workers are left to man core operations due to a rapid increase in baby boomer retirement, younger replacement plant workers will need information at their fingertips. This will be delivered in a real-time format that is familiar to them. Thus, plants will evolve to be more user-centric and less machine-centric.

However, IoT is not just a collection of technologies added on top of current automation systems. It is also a philosophy requiring an entire change in mindset, where the potential lies in the ability to link automation systems with enterprise planning, scheduling and product lifecycle systems. One example of this technology’s deployment is the “digital twin”, which uses sensor data to create a dynamic software model of a physical object or system – whose myriad benefits will include predictive maintenance, improved operational efficiency and enhanced product development – and which will become ubiquitous in the next few years. In fact, IoT is maturing more quickly than predicted, indicating a more imminent widespread implementation. A phase is beginning where the sheer availability of real-time information across the production value chain will redefine how companies produce goods, provide services and conduct business.

Barriers to further adoption.

IoT take-up is still nascent and has not occurred extensively anywhere in the world. Currently, 85% of potential assets remain unconnected and several barriers need to be overcome by governments and companies to enable widespread adoption, most notably the establishment of industry standards around IoT and cybersecurity protection. Standards are required to allow smart connected products, machines and assets to interact in a transparent fashion. This goes beyond the simple communication protocols, and involves the creation of standard semantics and mechanisms that will allow smart devices to discover each other and interoperate. Security needs to be built in industrial control systems and designed into the components that make up the automation system, not added on later. The adoption of industrial security standards with certification will be essential to the advancement of IoT because it will ensure the security not just of individual assets but also of the larger systems and systems of systems.

Governments will also face new challenges. Omnipresent IoT deployment, with its necessarily attendant infrastructural sunk costs, could create barriers to entry and exacerbate disparity between the haves and have nots. Monopolies could arise, especially in high-volume commodity industries, while regulating distributed production (i.e. at the individual level) could be exceedingly complex.

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