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Beyond the fridge

The future of the Industrial Internet of Things

Connectivity reaches its peak when data sets, sensors and recording devices are able to exchange information and establish a dialogue. What prospects are emerging for the Industrial Internet of Things and in which areas is it already being used?


We have moved beyond the fridge. In the 1990s when the idea of an Internet of Things (IoT) was first tabled we were promised that by the turn of the 21st century we would all have fridges connected to the Internet in our homes. These would be able to tell when we needed more milk, eggs or cheese and would automatically order them from the store for us. Despite this promise, we are yet to see our fridges do the shopping. What we have seen instead is that the IoT is happening in a completely different place. We are now more likely to see the IoT associated with the machine that manufactures our fridge, rather than the fridge itself, with a new trend that is being called the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). The ubiquitous availability of bandwidth and having computational capacity and near infinite amounts of storage, at our fingertips through the cloud has been key to driving this new trend in technology. In the past year, we have started to get a glimpse of just what is possible. This has come through the pursuit of things such as a more efficient gas turbine, the need for real-time fleet maintenance of trucks and the quest for oil and gas. The IIoT is even more exciting than the connected fridge. Unlike the connected fridge, the IIoT is already changing how we design and interact with machinery and is starting to have a transformative impact on how we live.


The Industrial Internet of Things of now

Many of the changes brought about by the IIoT have been subtle, but there are many examples we can point to where this technology trend is changing the world around us. Philips CityTouch is one such example. CityTouch is an intelligent light management system for citywide street lighting. It allows entire suburbs and cities to actively control their streetlights in real time. This allows local councils to keep certain streets well lit, to accommodate high foot traffic, bring on lighting during adverse weather, when ambient light dims to a dangerous level, or even turn lighting down, for example in an industrial estate, where there are no people. They are also able to change the colour of lights, which can help direct foot and automobile traffic across a city, for example allowing people to follow the green lights so they can safely get from the football stadium to the train station. We are seeing this technology in cities across Europe and the reason this has been possible is because CityTouch is using the cloud as the backend technology to run the system and extract business value from large amounts of data collected from sensors installed in the lights.

The rise of the IIoT would not be possible without the cloud. When you think that, the UK has over 5.6 million streetlights alone, if each of these were to produce even a small amount of data each per day it means a vast amount of information to process, store and manage. The cloud is able to keep up with this rapid growth and help to create new business models. When a street lamp is not only a source of light but also a thermometer, barometer and traffic sensor the possibilities for how this network of connected devices can be used to enhance city life greatly increases.

Another sector taking advantage of the cloud to drive IIoT is the oil and gas industry. Companies are using IIoT strategies to manage and gather data from operations in remote, often dangerous environments to make better decisions on where to prospect for resources. An example of this is Shell, which is using the data from sensors in their wells to increase oil and gas output. Each sensor generates about a petabyte of data and Shell is estimated to have over ten thousand oil wells. Managing and analysing this amount of data as little as a few years ago would have been unthinkable, even for an industry used to dealing with large data sets such as the oil and gas industry. Now with the constant flow of intelligence from the sensors in their wells, combined with increased compute power courtesy of the cloud, Shell is able to change how they operate as an organisation. By collecting these rich data sets, invasive drilling now becomes a last option. This means their researchers and engineers can spend more time on looking for the right oil fields and less time on drilling for resources that may not be there, helping them to save costs and minimise their impact on the environment.

Another sector where we are seeing the rise of IIoT, closely linked to Oil and Gas, is the utility sector. The best example of this is the work General Electric (GE) is doing. GE is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of turbines and is responsible for generating 30% of the world’s electricity. The company is taking advantage of IIoT to reinvent itself, and in the process, the economics of the industry. The company is using hundreds of sensors and advanced analytics to make their fleet of gas turbines run more efficiently. They estimate that if by improving productivity by just 1%, because of the sheer scale of GE’s products, the company could drive hundreds of billions of dollars in savings.

The IIoT is also changing manufacturing as we know it by delivering real-time conditions on the factory floor making it possible to not only optimise production and eliminate waste but uncover new business opportunities. Tata Motors, one of the largest manufacturers of commercial vehicles is a case in point. Tata Motors is putting sensors into its trucks and has built a service model, which is allowing owners of large fleets of trucks gain better insights into how the vehicles are running, how they are being used and to predict and prevent potential breakdowns. The sensors in the trucks can be used to monitor driver behavior, which can then be used by insurance companies to help set better premiums thus bringing new ways of doing business not only to the automotive business but also the insurance sector.


The Industrial Internet of Things of tomorrow

These examples are just a glimpse of the potential of IIoT. With the computational power of the cloud behind a network of sensors, we are only in the very early stages of what is possible.

As we move into the future, we will begin to see new kinds of sensors, with new kinds of workloads, creating a richer IIoT, backed by the cloud. A new trend we are beginning to see are video cameras being used as a sensor for IIoT workloads. A video camera is no longer just a simple recording device, but a complex sensor that can monitor a vast number of data points at once. In a vehicle this could be a video camera pointed at the wheel taking in data on the wear of the tyres, brake pads and disc rotors while at the same time monitoring the wheel alignment, suspension and handling of the car. In the traditional IIoT model this would require a sensor on each of these components but with the video camera as the sensor, connected to the cloud, all of this information could be ingested and analysed in near real time to help with the ride of the car or to help with preventative maintenance. We have just seen the tip of the iceberg. Many spectacular innovations in IIoT are yet to be realised and the results of all of this will spill over and impact consumers’ day-to-day lives in ways we can’t imagine, changing our kitchens, cars and homes. Does this mean we will never have connected fridges? I don’t think so, it’s already there, but what we have seen is that the true explosion in IoT applications has taken a different path than the one we expected and is not just about automatically reordering our milk when it runs out. The IIoT will change how we design machinery and the systems built on them, from manufacturing plants to airports. As such, we will have a more intimate understanding of these systems to be able to achieve higher reliability and efficiency. These changes will certainly affect how we live and interact with our environment.


This article is included in “Il bollettino n. 06 / 2017 — Connectivity”. To download the complete version, visit the page Il Bollettino.