Remote healthcare is an important application of the IoT. (Image: uaPieceofCake/Adobe Stock)

I just finished creating a quiz about the IIoT — the Industrial Internet of Things — and it reminded me of a job interview I had 22 years ago. After working as a design engineer, I wanted a change, so I applied for an editing position at a new magazine about the electrical industry. While I was making the rounds of the parent organization, a vice president asked me, based on my engineering experience, what important new trends I expected in the field. Although I hadn’t thought about it before, an answer popped into my head.

During the preceding 10 years, I had been working on industrial microwave ovens, and over that span of time, we started migrating from relay control to programmable logic controllers (PLCs). Once we had transferred all our systems to automated control, the next step was networking those siloed systems together. That was a major improvement in how we could get our systems up and running. We could experiment with control scenarios virtually before they were actually controlling things, we could coordinate different elements of the system so, for example, a single station could control a system of multiple different ovens.

Working with these automated systems, I grew to appreciate the value of networking “intelligent” devices to provide an integrated processing system. Although I hadn’t heard the term “Industrial Internet of Things” at the time, in reality, that was what we were engaged in.

So, when I was asked about future trends, networked factories were very much on my mind. Based on that, my answer was that a logical trend would be the application of those concepts to the world at large, for example, to manage operating systems in buildings. Automating and networking lighting systems, communication, heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), security, and fire safety would lower operating costs, help buildings become safer and more environmentally friendly, and make office spaces much more comfortable to work in, thus improving productivity.

Looking back, I am struck by how long it took until that logical step unfolded. Why did it take so long — the logic seemed simple: If you can do it in factories, why not do it all over the place? The difficulty of going from what is logically possible to implementing it in the real world is a theme I often return to; for example, my last blog was about the practical issues with integrating renewable energy sources into the electric grid.

IIoT History

The history of the IIoT began in 1968 when General Motors published an invitation for someone to provide an electronic replacement for hardwired relay control systems. The invitation was answered by a company called Bedford Associates, later renamed Modicon, who built the first PLC in 1969. In 1979, Modicon published a serial data communication protocol called Modbus, which is still in use today, as a means of remotely interfacing with and between PLCs and other industrial devices. In 1983, the RS-485 standard was introduced to define how serial communications protocols such as Modbus could be physically implemented to interconnect smart devices throughout a facility. These were the basic tools that brought the IIoT into existence.

IoT History

The Internet of Things (IoT) is not as easy to define as the IIoT. It is all about the interconnections among devices and people in the world, not necessarily confined to a single space. It is the collection and sharing of information and sometimes the use of that information to control actions — for example, adjusting the level of artificial lighting in response to the amount of sunlight shining into an office.

The term IoT didn’t even exist before 1999, when it was coined by Kevin Ashton, Co-Founder of the MIT Auto-ID Center in a speech to Procter & Gamble about using radio frequency identification (RFID) in the supply chain. IoT has more recently expanded to include active sensors with small low-power transceivers: for example, A New Wireless Tracking System Enhances the Extended Reality Experience .

IoT Breaks Out

The IoT has broken free of the limited environment of the factory and transitioned to the unlimited environment of the outside world. I couldn’t have predicted all the ramifications back in 2002 — before laptops, smart phones, and all the smart devices we have now. We’ve gone from the connected factory to the connected everything. But not everything is being connected at the same rate.

Connectivity has become an integral part of the healthcare system. For example, all the doctors I use, as well as the hospital they are affiliated with, are connected to a healthcare portal that allows me to communicate with any of them and shows all my appointments and my health history. It even displays my test results and allows me to graph them to view trends over time. And since the Covid pandemic, telemedicine, which includes such things as remote monitoring, has become even more widespread.

On the other hand, the adoption of integrated building systems has been much more limited. Although there is a good argument for its long-term benefits, the difficulty and expense of adopting it in already-existing buildings is a major obstacle.

The Takeaway

It’s not enough to develop new technology and assume that just because it makes sense, it will be adopted. A vital part of the development process must include plans for how the technology can be actually implemented in the real world.