No longer just a buzzword, the Internet of Things (IoT) is rapidly taking hold in many different industries, from aerospace and automotive, to medical and manufacturing. The IoT ecosystem incorporates Web-enabled smart devices that use processors, sensors, communication hardware, and software to collect, send, and act on data they acquire. Tech Briefs posed questions to executives in the sensors and IoT component industries for their views on issues concerning the role of the IoT in manufacturing.
Our executive panel members are: Jen Gilburg, Senior Director of Strategy, Sensor Solutions, at TE Connectivity; Dr. Boris Golubovic, Vice President, Marketing & Strategy, at Littelfuse, Inc.; Alan Grau, Vice President of IoT, Embedded Solutions, at Sectigo; Benson Hougland, Vice President, Marketing and Product Strategy, at Opto 22; and Robbie Paul, Director, IoT Business Development, at Digi-Key Electronics.
Tech Briefs: The IoT is changing everything, yet the path and scope of those changes seem very unsettled. Are companies rushing to implement IoT initiatives before aligning the technology to their business?
Hougland: Certainly, they are. But you have to understand the technology before you can determine how a given business problem can be addressed and at this point, the best way to understand it is hands-on. Start small and fail often. You may not know what business problems can be solved by the IoT until you dig in and try.
Grau: Smart companies are experimenting with IoT initiatives and adopting a “fail forward fast” approach. Initiatives that enable organizations to learn what is practical and what will produce business results are critical, enabling them to quickly adjust their initiatives and begin to see the business impacts. The companies that make large bets without validating their assumptions will struggle to produce business results.
Gilburg: IoT was so broad when it started and then we saw a more pragmatic approach. The companies that are use cases have a clear return on investment (ROI). For example, any manufacturer knows the cost of taking a machine offline. Being able to do predictive maintenance has a clear ROI. If you can show that you will recoup an investment and be more efficient with your processes and achieve better growth, it transcends the business size.
Paul: There is a wide variety of opportunities in the IoT space. There is some low-hanging fruit that can be easily capitalized for immediate productivity or performance gains. The initial solutions are in home automation because is it such a large market opportunity and the large companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google can invest heavily. The real gains in performance and productivity are going to come with the integration of AI with IoT.
Golubovic: Consumers are often seen as early adopters of IoT; however, companies also experiment on a smaller scale before rolling out IoT features to revenue-generating infrastructure. Deploying IoT is often the next phase of what many have already been doing in automation and controlling equipment within their localized facilities or campus. We should not forget that before IoT there was M2M communication and control on a localized scale.
Tech Briefs: How will 5G expand the proliferation of IoT?
Paul: The low-power, wide-area (LPWA) technologies like LTE-M and NB-IoT are game-changers. They provide a cost-performance ratio that’s compelling and one that will open a host of opportunities. In the U.S., reallocation of 2G and 3G spectrum will enable more efficient use of bandwidth. Even more IoT applications will be enabled as costs continue to come down.
Golubovic: 5G and provisions such as NB-IoT and LTE-M are targeted towards equipment connectivity — particularly mobile equipment connectivity. As such, these enable easy, location-independent deployment of simple, low-speed (e.g. alarm systems and access control), and data-rich applications (e.g. remote realtime image and video processing for process control or pipeline inspections).
Hougland: Newer, faster, and more robust communication technologies will only help the proliferation of industrial IoT (IIoT) projects and 5G promises to address many current issues related to latency, bandwidth, and reach. Not all IoT projects will require or benefit from 5G, though. It’s just another tool/technology that’s part of the larger IoT project picture.
Grau: 5G will enable new use cases that previously were not cost-effective with current communication technologies. Many IoT applications require the higher data rates enabled by 5G. Numerous network operators and service providers are already envisioning or trialing implementations in smart cities, transportation, and a host of other vertical markets.
Gilburg: For 5G, I think use cases that will leverage it immediately are automotive and then we will start seeing it evolve for asset tracking, smart city, and some predictive maintenance. The challenges for smart cities is that the decision-making is fragmented and large cities and municipalities tend to have other priorities for spending. I think state/federal governments and large vested corporations will issue grants to get the momentum going but this will be a challenge.
Tech Briefs: When it comes to hardware and software for IoT, how can companies determine what they need?
Paul: The good news is that there is no shortage of options. We are also seeing improved bundling and integration of hardware and software, leading to better solutions. Both hardware and software companies are realizing IoT is all about the ecosystem and they need to work together to provide the best IoT solutions.
Gilburg: For small companies building out a full end-to-end system, if they want to do condition monitoring, they buy company x’s condition monitoring system and it comes with the analytics platform, the gateway, and the sensors. More realistically, there are system integrators pulling together solutions and selling that platform. They have shifted the way they do business because of IoT. They work with different cloud providers and gateway vendors like Intel. They look at the solution and work with the sensor vendors to choose the sensors. They pull it together for a customer and then sell it to five other customers.
Gilburg: When we talk about sensors and I hear the word “analytics,” I wonder where they are getting their data and how good it is. You have this garbage-in, garbage-out problem if you’re not going with a well-calibrated, well-designed sensor. Sensors lose their calibration over time — especially cheap ones — so you need to make sure that the data you’re getting to analyze is accurate and secure and not compromised.
Grau: In some cases, this will happen through trial and error. I am a big believer in pilot projects to learn what works. In other instances including logistics and transportation, business requirements and customer needs will drive innovation and implementation. For example, one large trash collection company is implementing an IoT service to tell them when dumpsters are full to optimize drivers’ routes. The cost savings of not emptying partially full dumpsters is significant.
Hougland: Modularity, expansion, and scalability are critical elements in considering a given hardware or software solution. Because IoT is still new and companies can’t yet know all the ways its data can help them, being able to try pilot projects and then expand proofs of concept to scale is critical. Also important is the flexibility of a given hardware solution to work with many different software components, whether hardware-vendor supplied, off-the-shelf, or custom-developed.
Golubovic: To help meet customer expectations, hardware in mobile or remote locations must be designed to account for the variety of adverse operating conditions. For outdoor applications, one can draw on reliability standards developed for telecom and utility grid systems. In mobile applications, the automotive industry has many years of experience and established engineering guidelines that can be applicable to IoT solutions.
Tech Briefs: The IoT enables the capture of different kinds and higher volumes of data. Are companies prepared to effectively use all of this data?
Hougland: IoT is much more than just about the data. It’s an all-encompassing approach that should align technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, operational equipment effectiveness, and more with well-defined business objectives. The common denominator in any IoT solution is the data itself but it’s just a component. You may collect all kinds of data but use only a subset of that data for a particular project or business objective. Once you’ve garnered a successful implementation on one project, you should be able to use the data collection mechanisms to scale into other IoT projects.
Paul: Customers are finding out quickly that they have too much data; most companies only use a fraction of what they generate. One of the major trends in IoT is intelligence at the edge. Sensors and other end nodes are filtering and analyzing the data before sending it to the cloud. This results in more meaningful data for storage and further analysis.
Grau: In many cases, no, manufacturers are not yet ready to consume and understand all the data produced by the IoT. New AI systems and analytics engines are being developed that will find actionable business information in this data. Companies will find ways to utilize the data being captured, revealing new, unexpected patterns and information.
Golubovic: For many applications, IoT still may need to demonstrate value because its collected data may be “hiding” the true value. The true innovation is often in transforming large amounts of data into actionable information. For example, an IoT system for remote monitoring of power lines may now be able to collect data, perform real-time analysis, deduce a power line breakage occurred, transmit a control signal, and shut off the power, all before the broken conductor touches the ground, possibly preventing a wildfire.
Tech Briefs: Are companies still hesitant to implement an IoT network because of security risks?
Paul: Security continues to be one of the last elements of IoT design and development to be worked on. More companies are taking a holistic approach and including security in their initial plan. There has been a growing awareness that security is not something that can be a consideration after deployment. Also, the number of security solutions is rapidly growing. There are more off-the-shelf security solution pieces, both hardware and software, that are readily available in the market.
Grau: What is unsettling to me is that many companies are moving forward without addressing security concerns — adding large numbers of devices to their operations but failing to adequately secure those devices. This leaves data, devices, and network operations at risk. The good news is that chip vendors have begun to address security at the hardware level.
Hougland: Anytime operational systems are connected to a network for the purpose of addressing IoT objectives, security is a concern and should be considered fully before any implementation is considered. Traditional automation systems were separated from computer systems, often on proprietary networks. Opening these systems in order to share their data is valuable but requires thorough analysis, so being hesitant is a virtue.
Gilburg: I wish it was a bigger issue. Cybersecurity is my background and I know how things can go horribly wrong with IoT. Not enough people are asking about security and unfortunately, it is still very reactionary. There are lightweight things that can be done. Are they being done? Probably not always. Back when a system wasn’t connected, there was no security risk. Now the systems are connected. The good news is that anytime there is a breach, they are usually preventable with a little bit of common sense and a little bit of technology. The bad news is that most people aren’t doing the ounce of prevention.
Golubovic: Robust data and IT security practices are already critical in today’s enterprises. If in place and maintained, these make for a good foundation but each company must assess IoT-specific risks in their environment on a case-by-case basis.
Tech Briefs: What is the future of IoT?
Golubovic: Difficult to say. There are so many possibilities; for example, the use of NB-IoT and LTE-M-based IoT products using the mobile telecom infrastructure enables many remote monitoring and control solutions — virtually anyplace one can use a mobile phone. There are truly many possibilities for invention and innovation using IoT for consumers and enterprises.
Paul: Hardware and connectivity will continue to get cheaper, enabling more applications and solutions. Companies are getting better at looking at problems deeper and more holistically. The big data generated by IoT nodes are meeting up with the application of AI tools and this will be a strong trend in years to come. The real value will be unlocked using AI to make sense and find trends that were not even imagined.
Gilburg: The evolution of IoT started with a lot of hype but it will be quite a bit slower than intended because we are pumping the brakes and thinking about security. It is challenging because IoT is an ecosystem — it takes a village — and there are a lot of different players trying to figure out which use cases will evolve and what data is needed.
Hougland: The IoT is just getting underway. We can’t see yet where it will go but we know it will significantly change the way business is done — how processes are automated and products manufactured, how remote sites are monitored and controlled, and how companies interact with one another, their suppliers, and their customers.
Grau: Increased connectivity is not new with the IoT but it is accelerating and reaching to smaller, lower-cost devices. The hope is that companies developing these devices will learn from the painful lessons of their predecessors and not ignore security. We will continue to see headlines of data leaks, malware botnets, and IoT security breaches but with each publicized attack, the market will learn and increasingly become aware of the risk/reward of not investing in securing their IoT devices, data, or network operations.
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