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The Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Promise and Challenges of Industrial IoT

When it comes to IoT, the rising tide is lifting all boats. Now that it’s everywhere, solutions are spilling over from consumer into commercial applications and spurring the growth of newly smart categories from finance to farming.

In the last year or so, home automation has thrown IoT into the spotlight. At the same time, the automotive industry has advanced technology that could be useful in industrial IoT (IIoT). Plus, the availability of NB-IoT and the growth of LoRa, along with its backing from Comcast and Senet, are making it easier to develop and deploy IIoT solutions.

With the building blocks there for industrial IoT, the demand is being unbottled. GE predicts IIoT could be a $225 billion market by 2020, and Business Insider says global manufacturers could invest $70 billion in IoT solutions in 2020. That’s up from $29 billion in 2015.

Industrial IoT Use Cases

At Bresslergroup, about 80 percent of the products we develop are connected. For the most part, those are consumer devices, but lately more clients have been asking about industrial IoT solutions.

IoT makes sense for industrial applications where there are endless opportunities to monitor and automate.

And that’s for good reason. IoT makes sense for industrial applications where there are endless opportunities to monitor and automate. Here are some of the ways we see IIoT really taking off:

Predictive Maintenance

Industrial equipment fit with sensors can transmit information to maintenance crews, manufacturers, and engineers. For example, sensors can send alerts when equipment exceeds certain temperature ranges or vibration levels. That way, maintenance can be done before a breakdown, reducing the risk of unexpected failures and increasing equipment lifespans.

Because predictive maintenance is performed when it’s needed — as opposed to preventative maintenance which is done in time or use cycles — maintenance dollars are better spent. And, where equipment monitoring was once done by hand, industrial IoT can cut costs and free up labor.

Asset Tracking

Asset tracking is on the rise, too, and we’re seeing it used in logistics, fleet management, and warehouse monitoring. GPS, Bluetooth, and RFID technologies make it possibly to provide real-time location data as products move through supply chains. Devices like Tenna’s asset trackers allow companies to track construction equipment and vehicles on job sites. And, smart tags can streamline manufacturing and help manage warehouse inventory.

Quality Control

Being able to track a product’s location is helpful, but for some commodities like food and pharmaceuticals, it’s even more important to monitor shipping conditions, like temperature and humidity. Industrial IoT is making itself useful by alerting supply chain managers when container seals break or when temperature and humidity controls fail.

Safety

Because industrial IoT devices can send data from dangerous or hard-to-reach places, by putting sensors in high-risk environments, companies can avoid sending personnel there. As robotic technologies improve, this use will likely grow. Already, companies like Clearpath Robotics are using robots equipped with IoT tools to survey and inspect mines and aid in defense missions.

Three IIoT Engineering Considerations

It’s no secret that developing hardware is hard. Add IoT connectivity and things get a little harder. Put that IoT device in an industrial setting, and you’re up against even more of a challenge. Fortunately, there are a few things to consider ahead of time that can smooth the process.

1: IIoT Backhaul Options

In order for any device to be connected, it needs to be able to communicate. Traditional cellular options, like 4G and LTE, consume too much power and generally don’t make sense on devices that only transmit small amounts of data and do so infrequently. Fortunately, there have been advancements in low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) alternatives.

Now, providers in the 4G LTE space are offering NB-IoT, a type of LPWAN that sends sensor data directly to a server, rather than through a gateway. IIoT developers can actually buy modems and get contracts, whereas before they were stuck between knowing 3G modems were going away and not being able to afford 4G LTE options.

The growth of LoRa as a standard and its backing from Comcast and Senet present another IIoT backhaul option. With LoRa, IIoT developers can use one router, or service by Comcast or Senet, to connect hundreds or thousands of devices in an industrial setting without relying on their customer’s IT departments to connect to additional infrastructure, which often lacks the bandwidth to cover the distance required anyway.

And coming on the stage next is IEEE 802.11ah, or Wi-Fi HaLow, a wireless networking standard approved this past year. HaLow is Wi-Fi operating in the 900 megahertz band, which is the same band LoRa and Sigfox operate in. As a Wi-Fi option intended specifically for more industrial applications, HaLow will open the door to even more IIoT backhaul options.

2: Ruggedization Requirements

For consumer IoT devices, a temperature range of 0 – 70 °C is usually plenty, but when you get into industrial and commercial IoT, you need a wider temperature range. A lot of off-the-shelf modules don’t meet that level of ruggedization, which can create a barrier to real adoption. In some instances, IIoT developers are forced to build chip down, which adds time and expense. Others are left waiting for companies to develop more ruggedized modules. Luckily, that is starting to happen.

Sensors face the same dilemma. Companies developing IIoT applications need to ask things like, how durable are they? And, are they in a package that won’t vibrate off the board?

For consumer IoT devices, a temperature range of 0 – 70 °C is usually plenty, but when you get into industrial and commercial IoT, you need a wider temperature range.

Tenna’s GPS asset tracker is a great example of how durable IIoT devices need to be. That product is used to transmit location, speed, fault code, and diagnostic information from construction equipment and vehicles. It needs to operate in temperature extremes — from Arizona to Alaska — and survive salt spray, pressure-washing, cleaning by solvents, and tough shock and vibration. To meet those requirements and protect the many sensors — accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, thermometer, GPS — and communication technology, it was designed with a thick-walled, glass-filled plastic housing that’s fully potted with a compound to minimize the impact on antenna performance.

Fortunately, the explosion in automotive technology is leading to more rugged solutions that can withstand high temperatures and vibration. That will help enable IoT in the industrial space.

3: Long Lead Times

One drawback to the uptick in IoT is that lead times are now significantly longer on almost all components. For example, even something basic like a microcontroller that used to have a few weeks lead time can take 16 to 20 weeks.

Without careful planning, those lead times can delay market entry or even stop it dead in its tracks because there just aren’t enough components available. The market is continuing to expand and new facilities are coming online, but that doesn’t fix things now — it fixes things two or three years from now.

Companies looking to use lithium ion batteries should be mindful of the battery market, too. The rise in both IoT and electric vehicles may create a potential battery shortage. Already we’re seeing companies like Apple and Panasonic purchase entire cobalt mines in order to guarantee their supply for lithium ion batteries. IIoT might be buffered from that a bit, as alkaline and other types of batteries are usually better suited to industrial settings, but it is something to pay attention to.

IIoT Opportunities and Challenges

While IIoT growth presents an opportunity, it also comes with significant challenges. There are a lot of considerations (i.e. power source, data management, security, durability, reliability, installation) to be made when building a device. It is a nascent market in many ways, and implementations are still largely independent; standards to integrate and scale systems are developing as more large organizations deploy IIoT services.

This lack of standard methods across industry ecosystems leaves some uncertainty in scaling up large deployments, and how they will share data in large enterprise applications — or outside an organization. Careful planning and research can help with understanding the real use cases, users, and IT / data requirements that will arise on providing new data and services that an IoT device can bring to the table.

Luckily, as the market matures, the tools and technologies used to develop IIoT products will only improve.

Lastly, with current tools, functional IoT prototype devices can be made in a matter of hours or weeks — to field as a proof of concept or to allow you to run some tests — but it’s important to remember that a prototype is not going to be able to roll out into an industrial environment. Reliable, cost effective production at scale, and testing for wide deployment is crucial for success. The cost of failing devices, and redeployments in ROI, good will and user acceptance can be hard to recover once lost.

Luckily, as the market matures, the tools and technologies used to develop IIoT products will only improve. As in many emerging fields, there’s an element of collaboration in the IIoT sector, and as more companies develop IIoT solutions, they’ll continue to share lessons learned. So, despite its potential challenges, there’s no need to shy away from IIoT or to go it alone; IIoT is full of promise.

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