Somewhere around 50 A.D., Heron of Alexandria invented a working steam engine. If industry had taken an interest, the Industrial Revolution might have gotten started a heck of a lot sooner. Astronauts could have been playing golf on the moon when Attila the Hun was still in diapers.
But industry has traditionally been very careful about adopting anything new. Sometimes it’s because industry tends to have previous huge investments in equipment designed for long lifespans. Sometimes they’re just playing it safe. If the old tech still works, why take chances?
Consider Ethernet, for example. By the time industry started looking at Ethernet, our PCs had already been connected for a decade. Humans were downloading music, browsing websites, buying things on Amazon and selling them on eBay. Yet most machines were still muddling along with data protocols from the late 20th century. It wasn’t that connectivity tools like serial-to-Ethernet converters were unavailable. Industry and operations technology (OT) just took their sweet time adopting them.
Industry used to be dubious about wireless technology, too. Wireless got off to a bit of a rocky start in the conservative OT world, where there’s nothing funny about “Can you hear me now?”
Times change and technologies evolve. At this point, a number of different wireless technologies have matured and their costs have dropped dramatically. There are no longer many situations where some form of wireless can’t deliver reliable industrial connectivity at a reasonable price. I’ve noticed that although OT might have been slow to adopt new tech in the past, they are embracing wireless much more quickly than they adopted Ethernet. Wireless dramatically reduces—sometimes even eliminates—the labor costs associated with pulling wire in industrial applications. That makes it an attractive choice, even if OT tends to be hesitant about exploring new options.
Industry could be doing a lot more with modern tech. Wireless should be a key ingredient in modern machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), just as it is in the consumer world. Look at our ubiquitous smartphones with 24x7x365 data connectivity: We’ve redefined our personal expectations of what “connectivity” means. We can get alerts on things like weather, traffic, train delays and ski conditions, and we can have them customized any way we like. We can have the data delivered to us around the clock—virtually anywhere we happen to be. We can kill time in an airport by streaming a movie from Netflix. We can tuck ourselves into bed at night by downloading a bestseller for the Kindle. Humans expect to be fully connected—everywhere we go, all of the time.
So why shouldn’t machines have the same connectivity? Why in the world should I have to send a truck out to a worksite to see if things are running properly? Why should I have to walk around with a clipboard to collect readouts from sensors or meters?
With today’s tech, industrial equipment can be just as connected as the human beings who install it, whether it’s a motor in a quarry, a delivery truck out on the road, or a bin full of corn on an Iowa farm.
Fortunately, OT is beginning to wake up to the possibilities. IT and OT are even starting to merge. They used to be two different departments, with differing operating rules and differing agendas. They were even supplied by different sets of vendors. That is changing. Vendors that traditionally played only in the world of IT are now stepping into the world of OT through partnerships, acquisitions and other creative means. Vendors that formerly focused on OT are doing the same.
Here at B+B SmartWorx, we’ve been connecting IT and OT all along. So it’s no surprise we’re forging partnerships with interesting players and being presented with some interesting opportunities. Many of the biggest names in the IT industry are beginning to engage in the world of operations, and they’re discovering that they need help when they reach past the IT closet out to the messy network edge. We’re happy to help.
This mash-up of IT and OT is inevitable, and there will be winners and losers. Some companies are going to struggle with it. Some will figure it out early, and they’ll earn the competitive advantages that will make them the new leaders in their fields. If you or your company has any questions about merging IT and OT, I’d love to hear from you.
And as for Alan Shepard’s Apollo 14 lunar golf shot, it’s estimated that it might have travelled more than 2 miles. I’m guessing that drive could still be the record.