What is IIoT?
The industrial internet of things (IIoT) applies IoT technology to industries like manufacturing, energy production, and construction. When machines are connected, enterprises can track their activity, progress, and maintenance needs—and ultimately improve their operational efficiency. Also called Industry 4.0, IIoT promises to revolutionize manufacturing processes and help organizations take advantage of all types of data.
IIoT vs. IoT: What’s the difference?
IoT can be difficult to define, but ultimately it means technology in the environment around us interacting with other technology and with us, creating a “smart” environment. As a subcategory of the broader IoT, IIoT also relies on three layers of technology: hardware (the sensors and devices installed in factories or industrial sites), firmware (software on each device that allows it to send, receive, and process data), and connectivity (the method or protocol that enables devices to “talk” to one another, such as WiFi or cellular).
Consumer IoT vs. IIoT
IIoT is often defined in its relationship to consumer IoT, which is focused improving the everyday lives of consumers with conveniences like thermostats, security cameras, and automated lawnmowers that can be controlled from a smartphone. By contrast, IIoT improves performance and increases efficiency at factories and manufacturing sites. For example, an IIoT sensor connected to an assembly machine on the factory floor can sense when it’s about to overheat and send an alert to trigger preventive maintenance before it completely breaks down.
While consumer IoT products are typically used individually or a few at a time, IIoT deployments often involve hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of devices. Vehicle trackers can be installed in an entire fleet of buses traveling cross-country, or multi-function sensors attached to factory equipment to generate reports about productivity and maintenance. Mass IIoT deployments let organizations see the big picture of all their assets—where they are, what they’re doing, how much they’re producing, and whether they’re in need of repair.
What are the challenges of IIoT adoption?
IIoT promises dramatic results for companies across many industries, but adoption can be fraught with challenges. Organizing a mass device deployment is naturally complicated and often requires an overhaul of the company’s previous methods and processes. A few of the most common barriers to IIoT adoption include:
In general, IoT security is a major concern. That’s because as a new and uncharted terrain, the world of IoT involves a lot of moving parts and pieces—each of which can become a doorway for hackers. IIoT security in particular is a point of stress because dependence on a single IT system means a potential for tremendous damage if that system is compromised. If there’s a vulnerability in the software, hackers could take control of IIoT devices and start manipulating their behavior. Security standards for IIoT are beginning to emerge, and they will bring more protection and peace of mind for companies interested in adopting new technologies.
Connecting legacy equipment
Many companies still use older, legacy equipment that wasn’t designed to be part of the IoT. While products are emerging that can connect these older machines, finding the right drivers can be tricky—and translating all the data into a compatible format is another problem. One option is to upgrade all a company’s equipment at once, but that’s an expensive and often impossible feat. Realistically, most industrial organizations will transition to IIoT systems gradually, replacing older equipment as it becomes unusable with newer IIoT-ready devices.
When a manufacturing company deploys hundreds or thousands of devices and gets them up and running, they might feel like the work of their IIoT adoption is over—but really, it’s just beginning. Now, they need to keep track of all those devices. Many IoT platforms promise to do this, and may deliver the needed environmental or machine monitoring data the devices are harvesting. But companies also need to access detailed data about the IIoT devices themselves—their connectivity status, location, and health. If an IIoT vehicle tracking device suddenly goes offline or shows up in an unexpected location, IT leaders at the company need to be alerted so they can deal with the potential problem.
Data storage and management
Massive deployments of IIoT devices generate a lot of data. Unless organizations are prepared to deal with the oncoming tidal wave, their systems will be overwhelmed—both by the amount of data and the cellular usage of so many IoT devices. Typically, cloud platforms provide the best solution for storing IIoT data, but companies also need ways to manage it successfully. If data is coming from different types of devices in various formats, for example, there must be a way to convert it to a common format and send it to third-party analytics software. Without a clear path from the edge to the cloud and beyond, data can get lost in the shuffle—and if it’s missing or delayed, it’s pretty much useless.
What are some common benefits of IIoT applications?
While companies adopting IIoT systems will meet some challenges, they stand to reap many benefits once a device deployment is running successfully. Here are a few areas where IIoT can provide tremendous value:
Knowing ahead of time when a factory robot is on the verge of breakdown is a huge advantage for manufacturing companies. IIoT devices can provide that advance notification, allowing operators to deal with emerging problems before they cause unexpected (and costly) downtimes. But predictive maintenance also applies to the IIoT devices themselves—if the device detects a problem in its own software or system, it can send an alert to the company through the IoT platform. In many cases, maintenance on both machinery and IIoT devices can be performed remotely.
Bridging the IT/OT gap
In many industries, especially manufacturing companies, there’s always been a gap between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). This gap led to data silos and an incomplete picture of the company’s performance. By providing an overarching system that both teams can access and participate in, IIoT makes it possible to stream real-time information from a factory floor along with data from many other areas of operations into the same cloud platform. For example, an automobile company collects data from robots on multiple factory floors, combines it with data from operational teams and supply chains, and runs analytics. They get comprehensive reports on productivity that they can use to increase efficiencies and make better decisions.
Improved supply chain visibility
IIoT devices that track vehicles, crates, and packages can also provide better visibility into the supply chain for industrial companies. For example, a consumer goods company can track the status of shipments across an ocean or even across a warehouse with RFID or cellular IIoT sensors. Better visibility of supply chains means companies can anticipate their needs and plan accordingly.
The efficiencies that IIoT brings to industry are reflected in cost savings, particularly around energy use. Connected buildings, which use IoT sensors to monitor and control lighting and HVAC usage, can reduce energy bills by significant margins. One California-based company claims to reduce its customers’ lighting costs by up to 70 percent.
Using the data IIoT sensors collect, artificial intelligence can enhance efficiencies and deal with problems, sometimes without human intervention. An appliance manufacturer, for example, can use AI-powered computer vision technology to scan products for major errors. By comparing it to stored information, the AI-powered device can “look” at a toaster and immediately tell if there’s a missing part or a defect.
Which industries are implementing IIoT?
Many industrial sectors are adopting IIoT—some more quickly than others. Manufacturing plants, mining operations, logistics and transportation fleets, construction firms, and energy companies are just a few of the industries that stand to benefit from IIoT, and many of them are already pursuing connected solutions.
What’s the future of IIoT?
As IIoT continues to develop and adapt to the needs of different industries, more organizations will launch or expand device deployments. The combination of sensors, AI capabilities, and analytics will revolutionize the way many companies do business, resulting in huge cost and time savings with increased efficiencies. The possibilities, as they say, are endless.