2016: The Year of the IIoT Solution?

Feb. 17, 2016
After two years of hype and the promise of gazillions of dollars in realized benefits, is this the year in which we’re going to see real automation applications? Will terms such as “Big Data” and “cloud analytics” finally make it into our mainstream vocabularies?

Is 2016 finally going to be the year of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)? I certainly hope so!

Unfortunately, the IIoT landscape remains foggy despite the many hardware products—particularly gateways—announced in 2015. There is still no discernible market pull for IIoT as yet, but that may be an issue that we automation vendors must help end users face.

As I see it, the reason for the lack of market pull around IIoT is twofold: First, the value proposition is unproven and without a clear return on investment (ROI); few, if any, CFOs are going to sign off on the investment. Second, a killer app for IIoT has not yet emerged. Yes, we’ve seen predictive maintenance and similar functions touted as having the most potential. But automation users have been deploying these for a decade or more and rightly ask, “What is the difference?”

The answer to this key question is Big Data; its potential to handle the volume, velocity and variety of data collected from plant floors is needed to access the fresh insights promised by IIoT. And though Big Data is a very new and, as yet, widely untested technology in industry, we must not be afraid to look for new ways of working.

At the same time, we must be careful to not repeat the same things we are already doing. Algorithmic solutions to automation issues, like preventive maintenance, currently rely on human interpretation. As a result, we all tend to look for what we know. With IIoT, we should be trying to benefit from what we do not presently know. A recent Forbes article identified this “relevance paradox” as a key issue for IIoT users.

One of the conclusions of the Forbes article is that artificial intelligence (AI) will play a crucial role in IIoT. If AI scares you, don’t be worried because, in the background, huge steps have been made with this technology in recent years—many of which may be already familiar. Google is perhaps the prime example; music apps are another. IBM’s Watson is making great strides in areas such as health. All this technology and more will find its way into automation, one way or another. Given this reality, I suspect that AI may well enter into our IIoT vocabulary during 2016 too.

Looking out further, I believe that these technologies are just the tip of the iceberg. In my last article for this supplement (“A Disruptive Inflection Point,” November 2015), I hinted at how the automation hierarchy will change from a vertical architecture into a much more horizontal one, where mesh networks are prevalent. I think that kind of strategic jump may well be the ultimate way for IIoT to impact automation.

In other words, we may already be at an inflection point where distributed intelligence becomes a reality and novel interactions between machines and systems in cyberspace will bring completely new ways of working on the plant floor.

Many IT-centric suppliers are already pushing forward to help. Control system vendors are also seeking ways to handle the mass of data. Have they come up with perfect answers yet? No one is quite sure, but at least there is a growing range of options for testing the opportunities.

My company recently responded by launching a family of IIoT solutions called netIOT. As an infrastructure company, and one that made its name as a connectivity solutions provider, Hilscher had a duty to do this. Embedded modules and edge gateways are included as hardware in netIOT, but we are not an IT cloud service provider. So, to help users test those opportunities, we have added a suite of services for common functions such as mobile diagnostics and data analytics.

More importantly, we have also chosen to form relationships with cloud service providers. Our edge gateways already integrate with IBM’s Blue Mix offering, and we are pursuing similar arrangements with other IT-centric suppliers to ensure choices for end users.

Our aim is to make it easy for end users to work with the best IIoT technology that’s out there. We know that whoever gets into this market early has an opportunity to become a disrupter. It’s a massive opportunity, and one you shouldn’t miss.

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