In an emerging world where everything is connected to everything, the Internet of Things is poised to transform every walk of digital life, from manufacturing to media production. What will this brave new world look like and how close are we to seeing it become a reality?
Even though it's getting very close, we're not quite there yet. According to Thomas Svensson, senior vice president, EMEA, at Thingworx – a technology company that has created a software platform specifically to build and run innovative machine-to-machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) applications – we are on the point of taking intelligence "to a whole new level".
But it's not just the technological intelligence that needs to be taken up a level. The thinking and approach of the manufacturing sector needs to be modernised too. "Manufacturing has traditionally been very conservative. It tends to still use lots of analogue tools for tracking performance. It needs to take advantage of new solutions to connect and perform better. The new technologies will soon be more available, cheaper and commoditised," says Svensson.
What this means for the factories of the not too distant future is that every imaginable device will be connected to one network to be tapped into and analysed for energy reduction, increased productivity and cost savings in plants. There is already a rudimentary 'intranet of things' that allows factories access to health, preventative and condition-based monitoring. But the current stumbling block to a true Internet of Things in manufacturing is connecting sensors, legacy equipment and layers of ageing, disparate software systems.
Then there's the matter of getting the information from environmental sensors, including temperature, vibration and moisture, networked into a higher-level decision-making system so that the machines in the production line don't just know when it's their turn to do things but they can let us know when we need to step in and sort things out so that potential problems don't get the chance to become actual ones. Industry is discussing how one part of a plant talks to another; the next level is to look at how one plant talks to another. So what could that next level look like and what will it mean for manufacturers?
The big question is whether this new connected world will mean starting from scratch or working with the machines we already have. Manufacturers can connect their legacy machines and measure the basics around energy, quality and environmental performance, but it won't be nearly as sophisticated as what could be realised.
Svensson says the new sophisticated machines can in effect talk to each other saying "I have done this so now it's your turn to do this". They can talk to us too, telling us what we need to know to keep everything working at the optimum. In the factories of the future, machines will be connected by a network that means manufacturing companies with plants in different continents can talk to each other. Currently the fastest and most secure way to make these connections on the shop floor is via Ethernet, but 3G and 4G can be used in good areas. As wireless technology continues to develop, the possibilities for new and improved communications protocols are huge. "Where exactly we are going can't really be predicted. We're looking at what we can do for existing products in a 6–12 month timeframe," Svensson says of the plans for the Thingworx platform.
The IoT means manufacturers will be able to gather data from every machine connected to the network, integrate it and drill down to track a range of information that will enable better performance across quality, health and safety, environment and energy. It will also provide a holistic view of the entire manufacturing process and performance.
Making the most of data
The machines' performance can be tracked in various ways. Already machines can be monitored so that problems such as overheating or excess vibration can trigger alarms and generate a service call. What IoT brings to the table is that this information can be tracked over time and combined with analytic tools, so that patterns can be identified and manufacturers can learn to recognise that a combination of different factors contributed to previous breakdowns.
Svensson explains: "It's a whole new level of intelligence. By implementing sensors to track this information manufacturers can take, store and analyse all different data then look at the timelines to see visual representations of the lifecycles their production processes go through."
Any new technology developments need to include a way of making social data matter too. But how can social data be integrated into the manufacturing process in a value-adding way? An example that Svensson gives is to feed in a blog about a critical machine on the shop floor. The machine operator can then see if there are any problem posts in the blog. All of this feeds into the analysis data to provide a holistic view of what's going on. "Where the power of IoT really comes from is feeding everything in to get a view of patterns."
The clearest benefit for manufacturing organisations is that they will have a better understanding of where the issues lie with their current processes and will be able to vastly improve their quality management. Currently, it can take a long time to identify where problems come from, but IoT means they will be able to pinpoint them much earlier. It will also improve the way we work with machines to deliver safer, more controlled environments.
As well as seeing improved energy consumption through better process management, Svensson expects manufacturers to discover new ways of thinking around environmental sustainability as they realise what the technology enables. "It's in the using of these new technologies that more innovative developments will come to light," he says.
Benefits extend beyond the shop floor. Boston Engineering provides product development consulting that includes innovation, industrial design, engineering and supply chain development. Mike Laine, Boston Engineering's director of consumer products, believes that IoT will eventually see the transfer of everything to web apps. "Today, through integrated web apps you can have access to everything in your office when you're not there. IoT will bring the same access to manufacturing plants. Global manufacturing organisations will be able to see exactly what's going on in every plant no matter where they are."
What that means is that machines making the same products can be compared to see what is working better, where and why. This data can feed into the development of the machines that make the products and the products themselves, to improve both quality and performance. External data can also be fed in to control how factories are managed, with weather patterns and their effect on the production process controlling how the sites are heated and cooled. As new factories are built, this data can also be used to influence the design so that if you know you can use less energy in a production line that has a south-facing wall, for example, then that's how you build it.
With that in mind, the role of the IT manager in manufacturing organisations is set to shift dramatically. No longer just a support role, the IT manager will become a business partner guiding how departments such as R&D develop, so that everything an organisation does will become more IT-focused.
The sensors that are used to monitor and track performance can currently write data at prescribed stages of the production line process. As the shift to IoT starts to take hold, the development that will really move things forward is that eventually there will be no need for a server between the machines these sensors are installed on. "Currently, machine A talks to machine B through a server, but future developments will provide the current missing link, an interpretation layer that will take the server out of the picture."
Luigi Mantellassi is co-founder and CMO of Dizmo, a Swiss company pioneering technologies that enable IoT. He's been at the forefront of industry developments ranging from super-computers to the first system-on-chip, imaging products, advanced smart connectivity and display solutions. His company's technologies are bringing IoT transformation to multiple industries, including media and entertainment.
He says that the media and entertainment industries have been in transformation since the dawn of the digital age and it has become easier, cheaper and faster to create content more widely. Most recently, the biggest changes have been content creation and delivery in areas such as new connectivity products, increased device performance, innovative display features, the release of cloud technologies, the birth and rapid adoption of apps stores, and the proliferation of social networks. Mantellassi says: "the Internet of Things brings everything one step further and one level higher".
But what will the next step look like? Apparently, what comes next is the shift from the age of personal computing to a new age of distributed computing with many computers 'sharing' each of us. But how will that work? Computing has so far gone through two phases and we are now entering the third. The first was the age of mainframes, followed by the age of personal computing. Mantellassi sees smartphones, tablets, convertible laptops and other smart devices more as the last chapter of the age of personal computing than the new world many associate them with. "They represent the ultimate personal computer and are helping us to transition to the third age, the one of distributed computing, also called the Internet of Things."
The digital asset is making the transition to a distributed one, with data and services now in the cloud. During this third age, intelligence will gradually transfer into all 'things' around us, while we go from 1 per cent of connected 'things' to 99 per cent.
Sci-fi will become reality. Mundane, everyday items such as door knobs will become a part of a sensing, control and connecting station. "They will represent a neuronal network of distributed intelligence that reacts to specific conditions (presence, intrusion, movement, weather, time) and needs. Such distributed intelligence will be aware of our preferences, and will eventually be able to detect our mood and react accordingly, re-configuring itself and taking actions aimed at making our life easier and servicing us in the best way."
Mantellassi believes a few key elements will drive this shift. "The first element is ubiquity. This is the ultimate essence of IoT and a sign of things to come. We will see digital environments increasingly capable of detecting our identity and credentials, with a much more acute sense of personalisation: information that will be used to service us better."
The second element is convergence. Games, movies, social networks, news, TV series, instant videos, and a huge amount of web services are becoming accessible across all types of portable devices and fixed equipment as both the consumer and producer. So technology can communicate both with other devices in real time and with us.
Mantellassi's third key ingredient is interactivity, where we will see new forms of interaction happen through natural interfaces, among systems and between humans and machines.
For companies working in the media and entertainment sector the benefit is in the products themselves. "There is an opportunity for those who anticipate the movement in the sector, or take advantage of it, to develop new types of media, allowing new forms of entertainment and services."
Other business opportunities and challenges come from the democratisation of the market, which is set to disrupt the value chain, from the speed at which large numbers of consumers adopt new technologies, and through related by-products that will be needed to help consumers manage the complexity of the new digital world they'll have at their fingertips.
People will more than ever be able to link to services, goods and other digital assets whether they are at home, in public places or on the move. We won't simply have more to choose from, we will be able to do more with it, mix and match content from multiple sources and share all our digital and physical experiences with others, in real time, for a ubiquitous and highly personalised entertainment experience.
Rapid new media
The end of traditional means of distribution and consumption in media will affect the long-term development of digital content. We will soon see the start and rapid expansion of new types of media: we won't just have new ways to consume content, but new ways to interact with it within the IoT environment.
Dizmo claims that its technology will play a role in all three key elements of IoT: ubiquity, convergence and interactivity. The final beta release of its software is just being shipped to the company's Kickstarter backers and early adopters, so watch this space for the transformations it promises to deliver. Mantellassi says: "We have built the technology to offer customers a future-proof software platform for the IoT revolution."
Back in the manufacturing sector, Thingworx is already enabling early adopters to realise the benefits of IoT, with customers in mining, medical products, agriculture, technology and more all investing in the systems that help them improve their business and connect in multiple ways.
The big challenge for manufacturing as it moves forward into the Big Data world that IoT is creating is to make sense of the mountains of information gathered and to ensure security of that data. But IoT will deliver a solution for that too, with its use revealing new ways of parsing and filtering data. On security, Boston Engineering's Mike Laine explains that the firm is taking a cautious approach to the cloud at present with its customers. "We are telling them to think carefully about what they're putting out there," he says.
Internally, layers of security are required to ensure that data is only seen by those authorised to access it. This is where Laine says we will see the most development of IoT in manufacturing in the near future. The sensors that are gathering the data will need to become smaller and more secure. "What we'll see soon is sensors that can be programmed on the fly from anywhere in real time."