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How the future of the Internet of Things is about industrial automation

Ben Obear
September 11, 2015

A new buzz-phrase has hit the business world in the last decade or so, and it's one you may have heard by now: the "Internet of Things." Essentially, the Internet of Things (or IoT, as it's sometimes abbreviated) refers to the fact that the internet is no longer a seemingly central "place" accessibly only from a computer terminal. These days, nearly everything is connected to the internet: smartphones, watches, tablets, televisions, cars, clocks and even cattle (yes, really--sensors on cattle are currently used on Dutch farms to signal conditions like illness or pregnancy).

But it's not simply a matter of having a number of devices connected to WiFi at all times; the Internet of Things also means significant opportunities for business expansion and efficiency. One major IoT-enabled opportunity, companies are finding, lies in industrial automation.

From chatter to charts: using IoT to identify trends and opportunities

As technology consulting company SAP puts it, the Internet of Things could be described as "billions of things ... talking to each other." As terrifying as that may sound to someone wary of the long-feared machine uprising (or "robot apocalypse," as some have colorfully called it), it actually means that billions of devices are trading useful information at high data speeds. Rather than simply chatting to share information and solve problems like human employees would, these devices are interacting almost constantly and immediately in a flow of data that would be impossible to sort out without the proper algorithms. Fortunately, the brilliant minds behind these systems are able to use such algorithms to turn free-flowing data into observable trends.

Previously, companies might have relied solely on manpower, basic IT and other manual elements to keep daily operations running smoothly. As the Internet of Things has crept into industry, however, it has now become possible to offload some of this work to a network-enabled, inter-connected system of online devices. For example: businesses across the globe are already turning to net-enabled sensors to help capture process and product information that can be analyzed for further efficiency and transparency. Industrial automation can also go far beyond simple sensors; a manufacturing plant, for instance, might employ a series of devices that allow an engineer to sit down at a network terminal, run a diagnostic, and potentially troubleshoot a mechanical issue from the comfort of an office. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, that same engineer might simply bring up a mobile app to accomplish the same task.

What does the Internet of Things really mean for the future of business and industrial automation?

For one thing, the use of internet-enabled sensors isn't about to stop. In fact, it looks like it's about to pick up. Already, companies like IBM are utilizing these sensors in a wide variety of applications. Some are as simple as detecting the quality of food in a refrigerator, while others are potentially life-saving, detecting things like biochemical threats or cancer. According to data from Pricewaterhouse Coopers, LLP, 24% of Asian companies surveyed are already investing in the use of similar sensors. Latin America follows closely at 23%, followed by Africa (22%), Europe (19%) and North America (18%).

Through their survey, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, LLP was also able to single out the top 10 industries investing in sensors. As of 2014, the number one investing industry was energy and mining at 33%, due to their use of sensors to help detect dangerous levels of carbon monoxide for the protection of workers. In second place at 32% was power and utilities, which utilizes internet-connected smart meters to measure power usage at regular 15-minute intervals and transmit usage information back to the utility provider. Third, at 31%, was automotive, utilizing sensors and beacons in both vehicles and roadways to provide data for traffic pattern optimization, accident avoidance and hands-free driving devices. Then, at number four, comes our industry of interest: industrial/manufacturing (25%). Currently, these manufacturing plants employ a series of interconnected control points, allowing the company to disperse various oversight, monitoring and optimization tasks across devices rather than across specialist employees. By doing so, the plant frees up those specialists to utilize their talents elsewhere, increasing efficiency and creating an economy of scale. Other top 10 industries on the list included hospitality (22%), healthcare (20%), retail (20%), entertainment (18%), technology (17%), and financial services (13%).

The number of internet-enabled or "smart" devices in the world isn't about to stop growing, either. By 2020, international research firm Gartner estimates, there will be approximately 25 billion smart devices in the world, working to relay information between users, devices and cloud storage. That's more than three times the number of people currently living on planet earth.  

For the field of industrial automation, the growth of IoT may seem less dramatic than in other fields, but this is only because it has already been at the forefront of the movement for some time. According to Todd Snide, Group Senior Expert at Schneider Electric, industrial automation was already employing at least a billion smart devices by the summer of 2015. For the near future, Snide suggests, we can expect to see a continuing increase in device deployment, as well as generally impressive growth rates in industrial automation as a whole.

Overall, it looks as if the continued deployment and use of smart devices for data-heavy tasks will serve as the key to an increasingly automated future of industry. Not only will this level of automation provide an easier method of optimizing daily tasks and analyzing plant processes, but it will essentially provide the freedom to move the focus of specialists and other previously tied-up employees into new places, allowing the company to shift resources and grow in new areas without needing to bring on and train an entire group of new employees.

IoT, industrial automation and cyber security

Of course, as with any system that is strongly rooted in the internet, there are always technical and security concerns.  With potentially billions of devices in place across varying industries, there are bound to be numerous challenges, both anticipated and surprising. Aside from the possibility that one of the devices might malfunction or cause a miscommunication in the automated system, there is also the risk of cyber attack. In recent years, though they have been relatively rare, there have been reports of various automated, online systems being hacked and misused. Just last year, a study by security company Synack revealed that a number of common "Smart Home" devices were easily hacked simply due to being internet-connected. Devices like smart thermostats, connected cameras and home automation centers were especially vulnerable due to poor password protections, unencrypted data and other security flaws.

Fortunately, engineers working with smart devices at an industrial automation level are a bit more savvy than the average homeowner when it comes to security. To protect a company's devices and automated systems, engineers can use a number of methods, including heavy data encryption and other cyber-security checks. Ultimately, as these IoT-enabled automation systems grow in size, number and complexity, it will be up to the software engineers who developed them to determine the strongest ways to keep them--and the information they hold--safe from unauthorized hands.

Other challenges

One of the lesser, non-security challenges that those in industrial automation will have to face is the fact that end-device data is not always being collected and utilized. If potentially-useful information is not gathered at the field and process levels of traditional industrial automation, it is simply flowing through the system and being forgotten. Not only is this data going overlooked, but resources are being spent just transmitting and storing it. For the future, companies employing significant industrial automation systems will have to decide how to address this issue, and consider whether presently unused data could provide valuable insight.

Regardless of the challenges and security hoops still left to jump through, the Internet of Things is here, and it's already a huge part of enabling modern industrial automation. Whether it will replace traditional methods in all industries is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: the benefits of harnessing internet-connected devices for data transmission, cloud storage/processing, intelligent products, self-driving vehicles, smart maintenance and more have already begun to change the face of global industry forever. All that remains is to see where this powerful technology can take us, and what unexpected challenges it will face in the decades to come.

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Ben Obear
San Francisco