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Four industrial revolutions and an Internet of Things

2016 is the year of the fourth industrial revolution and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), but is the industry IoT-ready?

Industry 4.0 refers to the fourth industrial revolution – the first being manufacturing and mechanisation, the second mass production and the third the digital revolution. The next iteration will be the computerisation of machinery and automation using robotics, as well as the intelligent measurement and analysis of data to improve efficiency, profitability and safety. The fourth industrial revolution will be shaped by a fresh wave of innovation in areas such as driverless cars, smart robotics, materials that are lighter and tougher, and manufacturing processes built around 3D printing.

In this modern industry, data is the lifeblood, dictating the balance between supply and demand, and subsequently production, distribution and stocking decisions. We can also turn to popular examples such as Uber and Airbnb, which have used data, cloud-based technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) to develop disruptive business models that radically altered the traditional marketplaces in which they operated. The fourth industrial revolution is not simply about how businesses use technology to drive operational efficiency and reduce costs in their existing workplaces and supply chains. It’s as much about placing technology at the heart of their business strategy to give them the edge over their competitors. Before we get there, we need to think about the input and output of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). What is it? What holds it together? Why and how can it improve the world? These are the questions we must begin to ask.

IIoT – connecting 50 billion devices

The first area to consider when looking at the IIoT is the devices that will make it up – the input, if you will. In 2008, there were already more “things” connected to the Internet than there are people on Earth. By 2020, Cisco estimates there will be 50 billion connected devices. The explosion of devices is not solely due to growth in the connected devices we are used to. While the numbers of smartphones, tablets and wearables has increased, the dramatic growth of connected devices is due to previously ‘dumb’ devices becoming ‘smart’. From light bulbs to industrial machinery and kettles to robots – the number of devices that are connected to the internet and able to communicate with other connected systems is staggering.

With smart devices and a heavier reliance on automated systems, there are a number of considerations for device designers and manufactures. For example, smart devices are essentially “always-on” systems – they are constantly collecting data and communicating. This requires the evolution of low-power systems to reduce the running costs of smart ecosystems. Furthermore, when traditionally “dumb” objects are replaced with “smart” equivalents, there are potential issues with security. Therefore, the explosion of devices not only brings a challenge in terms of adding volume, complexity and traffic to the connected industrial ecosystem, but every new device is a potential security weakness.

Input to output — thing to thing

One of the key capabilities that allows the IIoT to function as an internet is machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. Simply put this is the process of objects communicating with each other via an internet connection. M2M communications rely firstly on sensors within the device itself, but also the networks that connect devices together. In an environment where an IoT has been rolled out and has a critical impact on day-to-day operations, these networks must be highly resilient, flexible and intelligent. Furthermore, the number of devices being added to IoT networks and the volumes of data they carry is only set to increase, so networks must be future-proofed and adaptable.

Security at a device level is an area that will need to be addressed, but data security is a major challenge that is not set to go away any time soon. Network security is a huge bone of contention when it comes to data security and data protection within the IIoT conversation. For example, one of the advantages of the IoT for healthcare is the ability to collect medical data in real-time from devices such as wearables, to more closely monitor patients’ health – particularly those with ongoing conditions such as diabetes that require frequent assessment and treatment. However, this medical data is extremely sensitive for a number of reasons, not least the fact that it is somebody’s personal data, but data records possess high financial value too. Therefore, security needs to be at a level where external threats are not able to access and steal data records within an industrial network, which is a major challenge.

What is the output of the IIoT?

Ultimately, the output of the IIoT has to be that businesses can increase their profits: by providing their customers with a better service and increasing their loyalty, making the supply chain more efficient or being able to develop new products quicker than the competition. The billions of devices and high-performance networks that make up the IIoT will allow greater automation, improved communications and productivity. However, the key to deriving the strategic value from the IIoT that will revolutionise industries, disrupt business models and realise the fourth industrial revolution, is data. In the IIoT environment, data from the billions of devices will be collected in real-time, transported across networks to IT and storage systems.

Managing this data is a monumental challenge, for the vast majority of it will be neither valuable nor insightful. So, complex analytics and algorithms will be required to decide whether specific data sets are worth storing or whether they should be discarded. Furthermore, questions need to be asked of the data to contextualise it against other data sets. We also need to understand what data needs to be prioritised or treated with extreme caution in terms of privacy and security, based on its importance and sensitivity. The businesses that are able to harness the power of IoT data will be able to work in a way that is more customer curious: using data to inform sales, marketing, communication and strategy.

Data management and analysis is at the very heart of the IIoT as businesses need to gather intelligence from the data produced by devices to inform better operational and strategic decision making.

Data is one of the most valuable assets businesses have at their disposal. With data being collected in real-time on such a vast scale, the value of data will increase exponentially as we see IIoT rollouts begin to take shape.

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