There can be no one with even a passing interest in information technology who hasn’t come across the Internet of Things (IoT) recently, and not always for positive reasons.
While consumer applications will undoubtedly prove themselves in time, for now, too many would-be inventors are taking a punt with machines nobody needs, like coffee machines that brew every time you log on to your home wifi network.
And then there’s the issue of security.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the Internet of Things is the biggest threat to IT security we have ever seen, between weak security on consumer devices and the likely future ubiquity of internet-connected devices — not to mention their use as locks, home automation and doorbells. Even the internet itself is under threat, with the use of IoT devices for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.
It is in business, however, that the Internet of Things is not a future prediction; it is already reality, driven by both cost savings and the creation of new revenue streams.
It is also a sector where security is being taken rather more seriously.
Michele Neylon, chief executive of Blacknight Internet Solutions, said that he has seen a real growth in not only hype about the IoT, but also actual devices available today.
“The thing is, it’s one of these technology areas that has been growing a lot over the last four to five years and now it is getting to the point where you can do cool and interesting things,” he said.
Neylon said that it is already clear that some manufacturers have better ideas than others.
“Back at the CES in January, everything was IoT enabled. There are three types: ones where it makes perfect sense, ones where it’s cool enough, and ones where it makes no sense whatsoever.”
Neylon said that the state of security was lamentable. “The security stuff is a complete disaster — it’s a mess. You have tons of these companies starting up, using the cheapest vendor possible, doing IoT things and going bust. The good strong brands, the Samsungs and so on, have invested in security and can do more, but there are other things lower down the food chain and some are very worrying.”
Nonetheless, even though the amounts of data sent by IoT devices are minuscule by Blacknight’s standards, it is an area that Neylon said deserves to be watched closely.
“From a business perspective, there are some fantastic opportunities [particularly] for businesses dealing with physical products, things like inventory management, things like sensors giving you real-time data. They can save money and even make money,” he said.
This is precisely where the smart money is today: the Internet of Things may be grabbing the headlines due to internet-connected toasters and smart televisions snooping on householders, but the technology has its origins in industrial applications, particularly in manufacturing and logistics.
“Internet of Things is a relatively new term, existing for a few years now, but in reality it’s quite an old technology,” said Bojan Sneberger, general manager of Industry business unit at software engineering services and solutions Comtrade Digital Services.
“It comes from sensors, which are embedded devices, communicating with servers. This has existed for some years, [but] what has changed now is the pricing of sensors: they’re very cheap, intelligent sensors, and they are robust and collect data, and send it much more easily.”
For Sneberger and Comrade, the basics of the Internet of Things are nothing new: “We have been doing it the traditional way for about 20 years.”
Sneberger has applications in mind, such as measuring the behaviour of production lines in the automotive and industrial sectors. “Industry sees the benefit. What is maybe [surprising] at the moment is that because the technology exists, industry sees benefits, but the world is waiting for a killer application. However, this is usual when a new technology arrives. I think we will see the benefits [very clearly] in the next five or seven years.”
He added that there were several significant impacts of the Internet of Things.
“The first major impact is that the Internet of Things is a bridge between the physical and digital worlds. This has the potential to become a new business model. We’ve seen new business models like Airbnb and Uber, but there is so much more to come — if you are able to measure millions of things in the field, then you can do something with these measurements in a new, unique and interesting way.”
Comtrade, which has developed an open source Internet of Things stack, sees the immediate future as being in making existing applications smarter.
“There are a lot of legacy devices in industry, and no one can just wipe them off and replace them — but they can be equipped with these devices.
“You could also share a machine with someone else, if you don’t use 100 per cent of its capacity, to develop a different type of product. That was quite unimaginable a few years ago. Today you can share a car or an apartment, but in the future you could share a factory,” he said.
Dell EMC is so interested in the future of connected devices that it has opened an Internet of Things lab in Limerick that works with companies across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) which are looking at developing IoT solutions.
“Our strategy is not to go for more consumer devices, there’s a lot of that, but the fridge tweeting at the oven doesn’t really do it for me,” said Dermot O’Connell, vice-president and general manager of original equipment manufacturer and internet of things solutions, Dell EMC EMEA.
“However, there has been tons of innovation. In Dell EMC, our focus is what businesses are doing. We opened the IoT lab in Limerick over a year ago and have now had a couple of hundred companies coming in to do things since then,” he said.
The Internet of Things moves manufacturing in particular into the connected age, said O’Connell.
“Machines don’t usually talk to each other in manufacturing; they’re all discrete. That is what is changing.”
Combined with analytics, the Internet of Things allows manufacturing businesses a newfound visibility of how their operations work — and why they fail.
“Manufacturing and quality control is a huge area. In that space with IoT, for a reasonable cost, you can get much better visibility. As things stand, you know where things are with your sensors. What you may not know is the minutiae of what temperature or humidity are doing. When you do some analytics, you may find out that a water tank is being filled next door at a certain time [and] that reduces water pressure for you, for example. For a human, it would be very hard to see how that could happen,” he said.
Dell EMC has already encountered similar examples with its clients in the real world.
“In one case, we found a totally unrelated maintenance request was causing a yield problem. We found that by looking at the overall environment and performing analytics.”
Analytics also offers the potential for predictive computing, with examples including early signs that an ATM is being targeted for theft, or industrial equipment wearing-out.
Dell EMC provides the Internet of Things gateways that allow existing devices to connect to the internet as securely as a traditional computing device.
“The other one we found interesting is cold chain logistics. We work with a British company called IMS Evolve. They’re all over the world and what they have is a sophisticated system that tracks facilities, coolers and refrigeration. There’s a huge refrigeration element to almost all food. These guys have the knowledge to understand what the data means. It can save customers tons of money in that supply chain just by making small adjustments: if you over-chill food you’re wasting energy and if you under-chill it it will perish,” he said.
One Irish business already familiar with logistics is ADC Barcode. Sales manager Ciaran Fitzpatrick said that the Internet of Things is already beginning to appear in Irish supply chain systems, from manufacturing to distribution.
“There are a variety of industries adopting the Internet of Things in their organisation. In the manufacturing industry, supply chains span geographical regions and depend on a web of suppliers, distributors and planners. Each link in the supply chain can create inefficiencies and cost challenges that ripple throughout the logistics, warehousing, and manufacturing process.
“Making operations more efficient, especially when related to energy and labour costs, not only requires visibility into individual processes, but also interconnectivity and visibility across the entire business ecosystem,” he said.
Smart data isn’t the only issue, however. Fitzpatrick also stressed the need for smart business decisions.
“IoT is becoming somewhat common across Ireland,” he said. “More and more we are seeing companies across various industries implementing IoT solutions. It is an exciting time, but making an organisation a smart organisation is a massive undertaking that requires extensive research, and preparation.
“But the correct IoT solution can generate massive savings by saving time and resources and opening up new opportunities for growth and innovation,” he said.
Retrofitting sensors: new wine in refreshed bottles
Forget smart TVs, the real action with the Internet of Things means connecting existing industrial devices to each other, and to the internet, with a focus on generating useful data that can be made sense of by a new generation of data scientists and artificial intelligence applications.
“Retrofitting is huge. Stuff as diverse as mining companies saying: ‘How do we create a digitally enabled mining machine that is smarter and more connected, that can work together [with other machines] and keep the mine up and running?’ A stopped shift is bad in manufacturing, but in a mine it could take weeks to get the mine up and running again. The way to fix that problem is to put predictive analytics in there,” said Dell EMC’s Dermot O’Connell.
Dell EMC isn’t alone in this vision. Bojan Sneberger, of Comtrade Digital Services, also sees predictive maintenance as a key current application for the Internet of Things.
“One thing we have seen is predictive maintenance, where by measuring certain parameters you can predict when a device will fail. Finding out after something fails is too late,” he said.
Likewise, ADC Barcode’s Ciaran Fitzpatrick said that in supply chain management, making intelligent use of data means that costs are saved and customer expectations more readily met.
“Manufacturers have materials arriving at multiple sites from suppliers around the world. Likewise, their finished goods ship to retailers and consumers globally. This creates additional logistical visibility requirements that must be met to avoid additional costs, long lead times, and poor customer service. Achieving the visibility goal calls for solutions that reduce IT complexities connects legacy devices and that are truly mission-critical ready,” he said.