State of the IoT: Visible and Invisible Systems

April 7, 2016

Most of the buzz around the IoT is about devices for the home and consumer market, such as smart thermostats or wearable fitness trackers.

But it seems that the more visible an IoT application is, the less it is about what actually distinguishes the IoT: the things – possibly because things don’t read or watch news stories. A huge amount of action is going on the Industrial Internet of Things or IIoT. This market is both vastly more complex than the home and consumer market, and much less visible.

Where the Money is: Efficiency

The IIoT’s value comes from efficiency. It saves money and reduces risk. It keeps machinery functioning optimally, minimizes downtime, reduces waste, and increases safety—and does this at a wide scale, covering factory floors, underground mines, rail networks, or thousands of miles of natural gas pipeline.

Efficiency is incremental. It doesn’t look like anything. That’s why many of us underestimate the effects of the IIoT. They hide in plain sight, in supply chains, power systems, factories, pipelines, and railways.

The Scale of the IIoT

A home may have dozens of sensors and a network that links them. A single locomotive, like one of GE’s Evolution series, has 250 sensors that put out 9 million data points an hour, and those numbers will increase rapidly. Consider that as part of the thousands of miles of freight rail operations, and the scale difference becomes clearer.

That scale paradoxically makes these systems hard to see. Factories, warehouses, railway switching yards, power substations: all are deliberately located out of sight. We’ve learned to ignore them.

Domain Specificity

Any large industry, be it airplane engines or natural gas pipelines, has a vast intellectual infrastructure of practice, knowledge, and experience. Technical people rarely switch from one industry to another. Someone who starts a career as a hard-rock mining engineer seldom finishes it working in high-voltage power transmission. And each industry has a vast amount of expensive legacy equipment with amortization periods in the decades, with complex associated workflows and training programs.

Transferring IIoT knowledge from one domain to another is difficult. Solving how to get remote ECGs from patients with atrial fibrillation is not the same as reducing the 100,000 annual forklift accidents in warehouses through position monitoring.

The result is that the vastness of the transformation may be less visible, simply because it is occurring simultaneously in so many different areas.

Consequences, Security, and Environmental Stress

As the above examples show, the consequences of error are much larger in IIoT applications than they are in the home and consumer market, involving not only millions of dollars in assets, but human lives as well. As a result, security is higher stakes as well. A single malicious hack can have enormous consequences.

Much of this equipment has to operate in remote, hazardous, high-vibration, high-impact environments subject to severe weather. And it has to keep working.

Big Potential, Big Investment

The potential gains are large, and the necessary investments are large as well. Despite their complexity, the changes being brought by the IIoT will be transforming our lives in significant ways. It will pay to keep your eye on it.

Catch up on the State of the IoT series: