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The 'Interaction of Things' is coming of age

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Consumer devices connected to the internet are no longer novelty items that impress your friends.  Starting with personal computers more than 20 years ago, the number and variety of connected devices has grown exponentially, and they are cheaper.  The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasts that their expansion will continue, reaching an estimated 25 billion units—more than four such devices for every man, woman, and child in the developed world—as soon as 2021. Not only that, they will provide users with an assortment of applications for the home, entertainment, transportation, health, education, and more. 

What the connected devices have in common is that they display information on a screen—such as phone apps or through a virtual assistant such as Google, Alexa, or Siri. Then the user leverages that information to decide what their remote device should do, and issues an internet-enabled command. Look at smart thermostats, washing machines, refrigerators, surveillance cameras, stereos, lighting, door locks, and so on. That is first-generation internet technology.

'Now, IoT devices are starting to impact the personal lives of consumers. But the part of the economy likely to be most affected in the 2020s will be the industrial sector.'

Now think of those same devices, augmented with analytics and cloud services, only without a person in the decision loop. What you have are devices that communicate with one another, sharing data, and then acting accordingly—all without human intervention. Beyond that, many of those devices are capable of learning through experience—improving their algorithmically-driven functions over time through AI. The result is what we view as the next generation of internet technology, also known as the Internet of Things, or IoT. 

Now, IoT devices are starting to impact the personal lives of consumers, but the part of the economy likely to be most affected in the 2020s will be the industrial sector. In supply chain management alone, Cisco and DHL estimate that more than $1.9 trillion will be invested in industrial IoT technologies, or IIoT, in the foreseeable future.  But, according to a study by the Business Performance Innovation (BPI) Network, it is an investment that corporate leaders justify with lofty expectations of IIoT’s positive impact on their industry—much of it within the next 3 years. In fact, 55% of those surveyed say that IIoT has begun to gain ground in their industries, counting both pilot projects and larger-scale implementations.

At the same time, there is uncertainty about crafting the best roadmap to successful IIoT adoption. In the BPI study, only 1.5% of the surveyed executives at large companies claim to have a clear vision of IIoT with implementations that are well underway. Another 57% say they are either beginning implementation, have pilots in progress, or are currently in the planning stages. When asked why they were considering the investment, executives cited cost-efficient operations, product differentiation and increased customer satisfaction as the most important anticipated benefits from IIoT.

'A key challenge relates to the IoT device technologies and validating that they can interact reliably with one another. It is critical to ensure that they do not suffer from what is termed the Interference of Things.'

Microsoft goes even further, envisioning unprecedented operating insights, efficiencies and visibility in manufacturing as well as a better understanding of customers, coupled with the ability to personalize business offerings and user experiences like never before.

But there is more. In addition to companies reaching for these lofty goals, the growth of IIoT is driven by a sense of inevitability among business leaders who fear their companies will be left behind unless they do something right now—even if they are not sure of what is best to do. “The tidal wave that is connectedness and IIoT is building rapidly and it is unavoidable,” according to Chris Locher, vice president of software development at The Nerdery, a digital business consultancy. “Companies see massive opportunities to increase efficiency, gather data in new ways and pivot into new business models.  [However] the challenge of the IIoT revolution is that it’s accompanied by a great deal of white noise and confusion.” 

Some of that noise and confusion has resulted from jobsite work reassignments, changes in process operations and novel business strategies currently being formulated. In each case, the goal is to capitalize on the wealth of real-time information immediately available to act upon. But realizing those benefits requires more than simply one-to-one communication between connected devices. It takes a whole village, including multiple partners and suppliers building ecosystems of interoperable sensors, cameras, meters, control systems, robots, machinery, and other types of industrial equipment. And at the heart of each connected device is a microprocessor that communicates the status of its tasks to its network which, in turn, is connected to other devices. Think of information moving along a smart electric grid, a hospital’s monitoring system or a vehicle’s operation management system.

Of course, it is tempting to think that each of those devices and their microcontroller components have already been perfected, leaving only the challenge of determining how to string them together. But that would be naïve. A key challenge relates to the IoT device technologies and validating that they can interact reliably with one another. It is critical to ensure that they do not suffer from what is termed the Interference of Things, especially when communication failure and network disturbances can bring about devastating or life-threatening consequences.

The key considerations to enable IoT in this dynamic and connected world lies in the 5Cs of IoT:

Communication—Reliable, low-latency, device-to-device and device-to-cloud communications are critical. New designs must consider emerging wireless standards such as LoRa, SigFox, Bluetooth 5.0, NO-IoT, and .11aX and their interoperability.

Continuity—Consistent power is essential.  Battery power must be reliable and uninterrupted. Battery life needs to extend from days to months or even years.  Optimizing power consumption will be key to shop floor innovation.

Coexistence—Multiple wireless signals in crowded radio bands can interfere with each other. This has to be addressed to ensure stable communications in crowded wireless environments.  Coexistent design and testing must become standard in all IoT applications.

Compliance—Emerging standards from the FCC, CE and FDA require thorough testing and evaluation of IoT devices. At the same time, however, lengthy compliance test procedures are also likely to affect the product’s time to market. 

Cybersecurity—IoT data and devices are becoming increasingly vulnerable to hacking—a challenge further compounded by the growing attack surface resulting from the number of devices in use. Designers must be proactive in addressing cybersecurity at all possible entry points, from the device to the network and onto the cloud.

That said, there is also good news: In each of these areas—product advancement, physical and electronic test protocols, legal, as well as industry standards—progress is well underway. As in any emerging technology, some of those issues remain unresolved. But the challenges are more clearly understood, and progress toward interactivity is moving along rapidly. While some disruption is inevitable, the advantages of IoT will be widespread, rippling throughout the economy and ultimately profiting everyone.  

So, for the record, people are neither obsolete nor redundant. They are still the beneficiaries and masters of the new technologies. Mission-critical human applications, such as life-saving remote surgery and safe autonomous vehicles, will benefit tremendously from the seamless Interaction of Things. Ensuring these devices do not decline into an Interference of Things—particularly when communication failure and network disturbances could lead to harmful consequences for human beings—will remain a top priority.  

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