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Are Sensors the Next Big Thing?

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We envision the future of multitudes of intelligent, connected sensors and other devices feeding data about the status of every facet of plant or factory operation. In this manner, plant operations managers and engineers will be able to control and optimize more than just a single loop.

Someone called for a chat. He wanted to know my thoughts about the industry and the “Next Big Thing.” We all want to know the next big thing. Maybe we want to make a Silicon Valley-type of investment. Maybe we just want to prepare ourselves for future gains in productivity and quality.

Every month, Jim Pinto and I discuss trends in automation, business, manufacturing and entrepreneurship. My function as Editor in Chief is to give him ideas for columns that will resonate with the readers of Automation World. Glen Allmendinger of Harbor Research had just sent a white paper with some of the latest thinking on the Internet of Things. I suggested that topic to Jim. Seemed like it would be right up his alley.

We have written about the Internet of Things in Automation World many times. One of the puzzling things about the term, though, is its metamorphosis. You may also have heard the term “Machine-to-Machine” or M2M. The idea at the time was that machines of various types could communicate without human intervention. Then came the term “Pervasive Internet.”

>> Next Big Thing? Read why IT departments are green-lighting cloud computing applications.  Visit

Click here to check out Jim’s column on the topic. He invested in some research and conversations on the subject. The only thing I am hesitant to agree with is his assertion that Zigbee will be the network of choice. The first couple of iterations of Zigbee were robust enough for such applications as monitoring heating/cooling units in motels. It has not been robust enough for industrial automation. People promise me that the next revision of the specification will be. When I see it, I’ll let you know.

The Internet of Things is shorthand for many, if not most, devices communicating amongst each other via the Internet. For industrial automation, it started out 10 years ago with the idea of machine builders being able to “listen in” as their machines were used, in order to collect information for future product development or for the ability to sell additional service. Now, we envision the future of multitudes of intelligent, connected sensors and other devices feeding data about the status of every facet of plant or factory operation. In this manner, plant operations managers and engineers will be able to control and optimize more than just a single loop. They’ll be able to begin optimizing an entire plant.

Development of sensors
The “next big thing” we need to realize is that this vision requires the development of reasonably inexpensive, intelligent, connected sensors. Once again, commercial technology development will lead the way. In a talk broadcast over the Web via IT Conversations (, Szymon Slupik talked about the evolution of the mobile phone. Part of the talk focused on the development of smart sensors integrated in or networked to mobile phones.

I have a vision, and I know I’m not alone, of a future where we make manufacturing an even greater competitive advantage for our companies. And we’ll even learn how to explain that to the executive suite. We’re getting there.


I just have a final note regarding Automation World, itself. Just as I have worked very hard to understand technologies and applications that are important for you, I also need to know what you all think is most important. We often use email feedback and surveys to do that. If you are too busy, we understand. Just delete the email. But we really appreciate those of you who carve out a little precious time to tell us what’s on your mind. When you answer an open-ended question on one of our surveys, I read it. It all goes into the mix when I’m considering what topics we cover. Thank you to all who respond.



Gary: If you're right about this -- and I think you are -- we have a huge problem brewing of unprecedented magnitude. That is, if anyone thinks we have challenges securing SCADA/DCS systems from cyber attacks and other malware now, just wait till EVERYTHING is both intelligent AND connected. The IOT, indeed! MM

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