IoT: connecting the dots

IoT Connect Tech Graphic - July August 2016

The Internet of Things, Industry 4.0 - or the fourth industrial revolution - is well under way and the good news is: it need not involve a massive capital outlay. Ruari McCallion reports.

Manufacturing is undergoing a change as fundamental as the first industrial revolution. Unlike the events of the late 18th Century, however, it does not involve the sudden appearance of completely new means of production and distribution.

IoT Connect Tech Industry 4 Stock - July August 2016
Manufacturing is undergoing a change as fundamental as the first industrial revolution.

The Internet of Things – IoT – is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but it is developing at an exponential rather than a linear pace, and the breadth and depth of the changes involved herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.

For cash-strapped manufacturers – especially SMEs – squeezed between competitive pressures and escalating demand, the good news is this: many of the building block of IoT are already in place.

If you have detection equipment for machine monitoring, you’ve taken the first steps. If your processes use embedded automation, you’re well on the way. If you employ SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) for process control, you already have a backbone and some of the skeleton in place.

IoT is about connecting it together. By 2020 there will be more – far more – connected things on the planet than there are people.

According to the World Economic Forum March 2015 report Expanding Participation and Boosting Growth: The Infrastructure Needs of the Digital Economy, something in the region of 30-50 billion, or even more, connected devices will appear over the next five years.

Population growth and expansion of communications and technology into the emerging world will create an unprecedented increase in demand for products and a market that can meet that demand. Connectivity is what will make it happen.

Adapting to change

Connectivity can be achieved at very low cost; the price of controllers has fallen to around £150 and they offer total end-to-end insights. “You can look into them through the web, through smart devices, or other appropriate means,” said Martin Walder, vice-president Industry, Schneider Electric.

It is enabling companies to think along the entire supply chain, from the end customer back to the raw material and horizontally, to the human interface.

Martin Walder, vice-president Industry, Schneider Electric.
Martin Walder, vice-president Industry, Schneider Electric.

And the traditional platform conflicts and incompatibilities that have historically plagued IT development seem to be a thing of the past.

Ethernet – the technology Schneider used all those years ago and for which it received the Computerworld Smithsonian Award for innovation – has become the common platform almost by default. Whether they connect by wireless or by cable is now neither here nor there.

4.0 or 3.x?

Richard Welford, chief strategy officer and chief marketing officer with Tata Technologies, supports the continued importance of human involvement – although with different skills – and emphasises the ‘evolution’ aspect, to the extent that he challenges the use of the term ‘Internet 4.0’.

He prefers ‘Internet 3.x’ (where ‘x’ is greater than 0), because he sees it as not so much a step up as progress to what may be seen – maybe after the fact – as a tipping point.

“Technology adoption rates are trending upwards. It took 20 years for dishwashers to achieve 90% penetration in US households. The smartphone managed it in just five years,” he observed.

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That pace of change places a massive demand on manufacturers. Change generally has capital expenditure implications and as product lifecycles are now shorter, those implications may be getting more significant.

But Welford stresses that the solutions will not be in the traditional mould. “The approach is to solve problems,” he said.

“Across the industries we serve, manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the type of products they are required to make – the level of personalisation, in particular. The market is continually demanding ‘new’.

“Industry 4.0 should be put in the context of that ever-increasing pressure. Global expansion and the local manufacturing model requires a rethink.”

Sense and Sensibility

Welford said the role of data should also be viewed differently, not as an end in itself. “Data is the new oil. A strong data backbone will enable changes in production management strategy and create the platform for the integration of automaton and the implementation of advanced manufacturing strategies.

“Companies must look at and remove discontinuities in their existing systems. By mapping out ‘target state architecture’, making effective use of appropriate existing legacy investment and only layering on that which is necessary.”

Hugh Williams, of Hughenden Consultancy agreed. “What we need is apps, not big back office systems,” he said.

“IoT is going to radically change the approach to manufacturing. Various companies, such as Schneider Electric, have already been building intelligence into equipment.”

A personal internet data container such as the Hub of all Things (HAT) would enable individuals to set the terms for precisely how businesses can access their personal data - image courtesy of WMG.
Things – monitors, machines, etc. – are picking up data passively. The next step is to make use of that data proactively – image courtesy of WMG.

The question is: where is the data going? Things – monitors, machines – are picking up data passively. The next step is to make use of that data proactively, extending the Kanban concept all along the value chain.

Instead of waiting for the customer to run out of an item, whether it’s a medical prescription, a bottle of milk or a supply of cutting oil, the supplier sees the event approaching and acts ahead of the event.

Effective monitoring and understanding of data, the ‘new oil’ of manufacturing, as Welford described it, and using it effectively is the challenge. And that’s where people come back in.

“There is a proliferation of sensors and they can collect far more data than we know what to do with,” said Williams. “We don’t need analysts at the lowest level; we have analytic software for that. We need people who know how to make decisions based upon it.

“‘Critical thinking’ is the sort of skill we need to see being taught. It really is about people – but we see companies investing in systems! The speed of change within an organisation has very little to do with the technology; it’s about mind set.”