What industrial IoT really is

The IIoT and Industry 4.0 continues to be on everyone’s agenda and it seems like such an obvious idea, yet adoption seems slow. So how can we make it real?

— by Mikkel Sørensen, CEO & founder of Omnio

We all know the dream of the industrial internet of things — millions of machines and sensors connected to a giant internet of things, delivering data in an interoperable fashion. There are untold benefits in uptime, energy efficiency, improved manual processes and new commercial opportunities. It is easy to get lost in all the opportunities and great ideas — and with good reason. We need to optimize how we produce and consume if we are to maintain our planet and environment, with a growing middle-class population.

Unfortunately, based on my experience, this dream is still far from the reality. While the potential is real, the real-world application of it is a different story. People talk of hype bubbles and it’s hard to accurately define the industrial IoT and what exactly it does. So what is industrial IoT? Is it a pipe dream? A set of marketing messages made to sell technology? Or is it the next frontier in the digitalization of the world? The truth is, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

For now, the reality of industrial IoT is: It is basically that of the internet in 1992, before the world wide web was widely available. Everybody thinks it has tremendous potential. And I agree, no doubt. Having first-hand implemented projects with hundreds of thousands of devices, the value and potential is absolutely real. However, it is still unclear what the exact killer app is. And perhaps more importantly, it’s unclear how to make IoT happen at scale, across industries. Many companies are trying to make projects and products, doing testbeds and pilots to find and prove the value. There are great examples of projects that find and extract value of the industrial IoT at scale, but they are generally few and far between. Why is this?

“The industrial IoT is about connecting the equipment we already have installed in the industry”
By our calculations brown field implementations are and will be >80% of the industrial IoT market for the next decade.

Green-field vs brown-field

When we talk about the industrial internet of things, we often refer to IoT devices: new devices built with connectivity in mind and interoperable datamodels, perhaps even wireless communication and voice control. In consumer IoT it brings to mind Nest thermostats and Amazon Echo devices. They’re purpose built to exist and thrive in a hyper-connected world. Product iterations are fast and consumers replace them as new models emerge.

This is where industrial IoT is very different from consumer IoT: Companies do not simply scrap existing equipment before the end of their economic lifetime. For industrial devices the lifetime is typically 10–15 years — and even industrial devices sold today are not built for IoT. This means that, come 2028, the major part of the installed base will be non-IoT devices, still purring away, doing their job.

For this reason, the reality is that the industrial IoT is about connecting the equipment we already have installed in the industry. The pumps, the drives, the valves, the CNC machines, all existing on the ground today, are the one’s we need to connect to make industrial IoT happen. By our calculations brown field implementations are and will be >80% of the industrial IoT market for the next decade. There will be greenfield implementations with native IoT devices throughout, but they’ll be the minority. Bringing legacy devices from the operation technology (OT) domain into the world of information technology (IT), to create IoT, is thus a major hurdle to overcome.

“The data is already there, we just lack the means to get it put into play in a fast and easy way”

If data is the new oil, how do we get it out of the ground?

So, should we start putting countless sensors out into the world to speed things up? That is of course an option, but it is a costly one and it overlooks the great opportunity of tapping the potential in current devices.

A typical industrial device in a factory, or in a water grid, already has a communications interface today. For the last 20 years or so, that’s been a standard feature on most major devices. This means that they are generating data — and lots of it. A given pump may have 200 datapoints, each being measured 10 times a second. That’s 2000 datapoints, per second, per pump. Imagine that you have just 10 pumps in a factory — that’s 20.000 datapoints a second, all day, every day. The potential in using this data for energy optimization, predictive maintenance or other uses are tremendous — and they are largely untapped. It’s like knowing there are millions of barrels of oil under your feet, but not pumping it out!

However, there’s an explanation for this: Like with oil, you need to extract the data and refine it, before it is ready for use. The industrial devices still sold today, generally use communication protocols and interfaces not suited for the fast paced IT world. This means it is complex to get the data out of the device and make it useful.

Furthermore, the datamodels, units and other specifics are not standardized. This requires costly manual labor to integrate to the device and make the data interoperable, often running into the days and weeks for a single device. Looking at a consulting cost of thousands of dollars is always a sobering experience. Add to that the fact that the value of connecting devices can be unclear and the choice will often be to keep the data in the machine — or the oil in the ground, as it were. The data is already there, we just lack the means to get it put into play in a fast and easy way.

“Getting legacy infrastructure online and interoperable is one of the obvious first steps”
To make IoT happen we must first bridge the IT / OT gap.

So, what is the industrial IoT really?

The industrial IoT is really about representing the physical world in the shape of data, enabling us to optimize processes and lower our impact on the planet, while maintaining our standard of living.

Today, the state of the industrial IoT is that it is an enormous, undefined potential. It is billions of devices, generating trillions of datapoints over their lifetime, waiting to be connected and the data set free. And it is a huge engineering challenge to bring the world of OT and IT together into a coherent internet of things and make use cases that can be realized as easily as plugging a mouse into a computer. Before this simplicity is a reality, industrial IoT as we imagine it simply won’t happen. Doing so will require a huge lift in technologies and integrating the old in a new context.

The road from here to there needs to start with the basics. We need to face reality and build the components and technologies necessary to realize the potential. Ease of use, security and clear value propositions must be the goal. Getting legacy infrastructure online and interoperable is one of the obvious first steps. It will lower the costs of adoption and drive data availability for the solution vendors delivering the value creating apps in the end. At Omnio, we do our little part by making it easy to connect legacy devices. But ultimately the IoT is really about an entirely new ecosystem working together for a greater whole.

You might be asking yourself: “Is it worth it?”. Sadly, the end state of the industrial IoT is as easy to predict now, as it was to predict the state of the internet in 2018 from a 1992 vantage point. However, with what we’ve seen in previous projects, and continue to experience every day with our customers, the benefits far outstrip the costs. Let’s build the world of tomorrow. We look forward to #MakeIoTHappen.