The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is becoming a hot topic within business communities, but few people are fully up-to-speed. Industrial journalists struggle to keep up with the trends as Industry 4.0 proliferates, and technological innovations come thick and fast. Throw in a lingering pandemic, a global chip shortage, and the war in Ukraine, and things get even murkier.
To clarify the state of IIoT heading in 2023, this article will break down some key terminology and list (what we think are) the biggest stories in IIoT
What is IIoT?
The Internet of Things (IoT) describes all the different technologies (sensors, computers, machines, wearable tech, software, and other technologies) that exchange and process data through the internet or other communication networks. This could include the various internet-connected devices within a home, including iPads, boilers, phones, security systems, and lighting. Or it could refer to the connections found in an office, factory, or even across vast urban environments (eg. smart traffic systems, street lighting, surveillance systems, and power grids).
Given the above, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) refers to the use of internet or network-connected devices and machines in the service of enhancing manufacturing and industrial processes. This will usually involve the use of sensors and actuators, creating opportunities for better oversight, automation, and analytics.
What Are The Biggest Stories in Industrial IoT in 2023?
Issues with scaling
Over the past year, there has been much discussion surrounding the moving of IoT solutions from factory/plant/depot operations to company-wide operations. This “scaling” of IIoT is often hindered by the fact that the companies providing the solutions are often young and have little experience in scaling up their own solutions.
The complexity of integrations and inadequate life cycle support also create issues, leaving 80% of IIoT solution buyers to scale fewer than 60% of their pilot projects. This will change over time as businesses get more adept at solving these scaling issues, but for now, all manufacturers should question the length of time their solution providers have been in operation, and the size of projects they have been involved in.
IIoT Security is less of a problem
Increasing the number of devices and sensors connected to a network will inevitably increase the number of vulnerabilities in a network. While this might not be such a problem in a home environment, in an industrial setting, security breaches can cause loss of production, equipment damage, loss of revenue, and significant data theft. For this reason, data security is taken seriously by all serious IIoT vendors, and it seems they are winning the battle against would-be cybercriminals.
Many IIoT systems that were originally designed to be separate, isolated networks are now being connected into growing, web-connected networks. This is creating opportunities for cyberattacks but most IIoT service providers are aware of the risks and are now able to counterbalance the potential hazards. There are several best practices used by industrial system managers to ensure proper system security including; Using Existing Cybersecurity Frameworks, Prioritizing Lan security, and Securing Endpoints (strong password policies, firewalls, anti-virus software etc). As these practices have gotten more sophisticated, the initial security burden placed on IIoT systems has slackened, lowering a key barrier to mass adoption
The State of wireless sensors
Wireless sensors are becoming increasingly important in IIoT systems as the demand for asset real-time tracking increases. However, the world of wireless sensors can be confusing for anyone unfamiliar with the complexities of wireless data transfer.
There are many different types of technologies used for broadcasting and receiving data wirelessly, and they will apply to different industrial scenarios. Due to the complexity of industrial environments, the number of obstructive materials, the size of the indoor and outdoor spaces, and many other factors, certain radio signals can be better suited to certain environments or particular data needs within those environments. Some examples are:
BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) can be extremely useful for certain industrial tasks, and it is already widely used in mobile phone technology. It can easily be used for tracking people and assets and requires less power than some other solutions, but it can also suffer from inaccuracy and distorted signals.
UWB (Ultrawide-band) has a much higher bandwidth than BLE, making the transfer of large datasets much easier. It can also create far more accurate data readings due to its signals being less prone to interference.
GPS can be used for locating assets but is often less useful in indoor environments due to its dependence on satellites. RTK-GPS is becoming more ubiquitous for outdoor, precision tracking through its use of base units which help clean up the satellite data.
How these wireless systems compete, and interconnect, with each other will be a major area of interest as IIoT grows and innovates.
The battle of the new Wi-Fi networks (5G Private Networks vs Wifi 6)
There is something of a battle raging between 5G Private Networks and Wi-Fi 6. Both are attempting to gain traction in industrial settings, but both have different advantages and drawbacks. With Tesla recently announcing they had opted for 5G, even after people had assumed they would opt for Wi-Fi 6, what’s all the fuss about? And why is Industry set to gain, whoever becomes the dominant force in Wi-Fi?
Traditional, Wi-Fi networks have been effective at connecting computers and phones to office networks or home networks, but within industrial environments like car factories, Wi-Fi has been problematic for many years. Machinery impedes the Wi-Fi signals, the environments are often harsh, and the production-critical network can be disrupted or overloaded by other devices connecting to the network. It has been a long time coming, but a new generation of Wi-Fi systems is emerging to solve these problems, and the main contenders are Wi-Fi 6 and 5G.
Philosophically, Wi-Fi 6 is more like the Wild West. It is much freer and more malleable than its counterpart, Private 5G, which requires more red tape to set up, while being generally less dynamic. But regardless of the core differences between the networks, their inevitable expansion will lead to more efficient, and cost-effective enterprises. While many IIoT hardware providers are having to hedge their bets as to which Wi-Fi systems will win out, many are already choosing to make their products compatible with both. Expect some interesting fallout from the businesses that make the wrong choice.
One area of IIoT receiving increased attention recently is Predictive Maintenance. Monitoring tools and equipment in real-time through the IIoT can prevent machine failure and disruption to production. This is achieved through a combination of checking for abnormalities in normal operations, as well as Vibration Analysis, Infrared Analysis, and Sonic Acoustical Analysis. Predictive maintenance differs from preventative maintenance, which involves regular scheduling of maintenance, regardless of usage. Preventative maintenance is obviously less cost-effective, and many businesses are seeing huge cost savings by switching to a predictive model.
AI Visual Inspection & Quality Assurance
Related to Predictive Maintenance, AI Visual Inspection is becoming an important part of Quality Assurance in many industrial settings. While tags and sensors offer up many useful real-time tracking solutions, the use of simple cameras, often with AI augmentation, is making many processes less time-consuming. AI learning systems can improve inspection processes over time, automating the inspection of machinery, products, and environments. Many of these systems utilize a “Rejection Decision Engine” which compares an acceptable product model with an image of the product being inspected. The results are then displayed in real-time, along with historical data. As this technology develops, many enterprises can expect extreme cost savings.
Wearable, internet-connected devices have been around for a while – from Fitbits to Apple Watches. But the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of wearables in industrial settings and the general public’s acceptance of tracking technologies. Used for social distancing, worker safety, and security, wearable tags and interfaces are only going to become more commonplace in industrial environments. Often attached to clothing and helmets, tags can also be used to help automate processes based on employee proximity to certain workstations. As tagging technology grows cheaper, and the benefits of tags and wearable interfaces become more apparent, employees will only become more comfortable with their usage.
A major topic over the past year, Edge Computing is becoming increasingly important as more and more IoT devices work their way into industrial settings. In principle, Edge Computing changes how data created by IoT devices is stored, processed, and analyzed. When previously most of this data ended up in cloud-based solutions or enterprise data centers, now businesses are looking to move all this storage, processing, and analytics work closer to the devices the data stems from. With much greater data burdens being created by smart factories and industrial sites, it can now be far more cost-effective to keep this data “on the edge”, ie nearby, while also reducing latency problems associated with remote storage and processing. Relevant data can then be sent to the cloud after the heavy work is completed, if necessary.
Chip Shortage Update
One of the big industrial stories to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic was the effect of supply chain issues on microchip production. The automotive industry has been particularly affected by this issue, as almost all cars depend on a battery of microchips to function properly. IIoT is also vulnerable as microchips are used in the microcontrollers and sensors crucial to IIoT systems. But it is not just the pandemic causing the issue, the sheer demand for microchips is causing much of the problems, as more and more smart devices flood the markets.
This said, additional production capacity will become available over the next year or two, and IIoT itself may be crucial to smoothing out supply chain issues in the future, particularly its predictive functionalities. Companies that can solve production problems intelligently in this climate could gain significant competitive advantage.