The Internet of Things and The Industrial Horizon

Over recent years, there has been an awful lot of hype over the Internet of Things (IoT). We’re told it will transform our lives, bring about the fourth industrial revolution and possibly even improve our work lives and living standards. Less is said about how this will be achieved, or even what the IoT actually is, and why it will benefit our lives.

In an age when technology is moving in leaps and bounds, it is important to stay informed about the changes happening to our world. Here we sift the fact from the fiction in order to understand how business can expect to change as the IoT ushers in a new era for us all.

The IoT explained, simply

In the most basic terms, the IoT is a network of products, both for commercial and consumer use, which are connected to each other and various services or businesses through the internet. These items have chips with sensors inserted into them which are programmed to record and monitor various functions and use. This information is then communicated within a closed network or across multiple networks to provide a better service or additional insights for the user of the item while also capturing data for manufacturers to aid further development, innovation of new products and in some cases automates processes.

There are multiple, almost endless applications for this connected technology. Take for example a smart meter. It records the energy consumed at a property and displays that information for the property owner or tenant, as well as relaying the information back to the energy supplier. This real-time display of energy consumption for both the consumer and the supplier is enabling people to better understand their energy needs and wastage. This knowledge, in turn, enables real-time monitoring of energy consumption across the grid and the creation of plans and services in response to the data that is automatically being gathered for them.

The same principle is used for any number or kind of item, from smart concrete that gives updates on the condition of the material via a chip and sensor inserted into it to industrial robots that have sensors to alert owners of their maintenance needs before parts wear out and something goes wrong.

Where the IoT could take us

Understandably, the expectations for the IoT are high. By connecting all manner of devices to each other and businesses more data can be captured, analyzed, and acted upon.  In some cases, humans won’t even need to be present to put the machines to work; remote operation of smart, connected devices will be the new way of working – or so we are told.

It is conceivable that machines and devices of all kinds could be programmed to work together to produce products and even order new raw materials when the stock is running low so they can carry on with their work uninterrupted. Workforces could be vastly reduced and processes not only automated but managed remotely. The massive amounts of data accumulated by all of the devices connected to the IoT will provide even more room for opportunity, understanding, and insight to manufacturing and other work.

The integration of radio-frequency identification (RFID) and the IoT are expected to transform supply chains too. RFID means specific items can be tracked and through the IoT real-time updates on delivery, tracking and inventory systems could be possible. It would also cut down on counterfeit goods, help better management for the expiration of perishable items, and allow for remote monitoring of conditions during delivery, such as temperature, moisture levels, and even potential contaminants.

Other recent technological advancements such as Blockchain and tangle technology are being combined with IoT to bring about a marketplace without transaction fees and even machine to machine transactions that allow equipment to purchase and manage small transactions with cryptocurrencies on the behalf of their owners, or even autonomously.

IoT hurdles yet to be cleared

All this embedded technology negating the need for human involvement has its downsides though. Some of the expectations for the IoT are, as yet, unrealizable for a number of different reasons ranging from security issues to connectivity problems and even the fact that maybe humans do want to decide if they’ll order more milk instead of leaving the decision up to their fridge.

The recent boom in the number of smart, connected devices that make up the IoT has given new life to an issue that has been around since the dawn of personal computers: different programming and coding languages can stop devices ‘talking’ to each other, or make it difficult. In a similar way to Mac and Microsoft being incompatible, many of the items in the IoT have difficulty communicating, largely because of different programming languages and a lack of accepted standards that could make that possible.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Standards Association is working on a long list of standards that address some of the communication issues for machines and devices on the IoT, but as this is being done, the Internet Society has noted that the need for other interoperability standards is coming to light. Without the ability to communicate with a range of different objects and machines in a common language, the IoT suddenly seems more like the Internet of Some Things but Not Others.

Corporate privacy and security also become much harder to manage with the IoT. Data breaches, cyber attacks, and compromised systems are a real threat, costing the American economy somewhere around $57 and $109 billion in 2016. While the IoT could streamline business processes, give transparency to supply chains, and allow for a decrease in manufacturing workforces and running costs, it could also open them up to digital threats of many kinds.

Along with that is the issue of the massive amounts of data being collected and how that data is used. While a company may be making the best possible effort to store and protect the data collected from their own machines and that of their products in use by consumers, there is still the potential for it to fall into the wrong hands, or for unscrupulous organizations to use it for less than beneficial purposes. While there aren’t many countries with specific laws governing IoT data collection and use of that data, the Federal Trade Commission has compiled some best practices for protecting data gathered from users for companies who create IoT-connected products.  Aside from that, however, laws pertaining to security and privacy of information available on the IoT is governed by laws written before the IoT was ever imagined.

The sheer size and complexity of the IoT can also be a cause for concern. Any bug, virus or glitch could have serious consequences for a business relying solely on embedded technology to get things done. A simple power failure could stop production and lose thousands if not millions for a manufacturer reliant on connected technology and robots.

The IoT is definitely an exciting opportunity for innovation in businesses of all kinds. The applications seem near endless, the convenience and ability to automate everyday processes almost infinitely. The issues with connectivity, interoperability, security, and complexity, however, are real and will take thought and cooperation from all players to solve before the big dreams can be realized. Fortunately, there are many organizations and technology firms working to this end, and one way or another, the IoT in some form will most certainly change the future for all of us.

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