The Industrial IoT isn’t the same as the consumer IoT

Reading Kipp Bradford’s recent article, The Industrial Internet of Things: The opportunity no one’s talking about, got me thinking about commonly held misconceptions about what the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is — as well as what it’s not.

Misconception 1: The IIoT is the same as the consumer Internet of Things (IoT), except it’s located on a factory floor somewhere.

This misconception is easy to understand, given that both the IIoT and the consumer IoT have that “Internet of Things” term in common. Yes, the IIoT includes devices located in industrial settings: maybe a factory floor, or perhaps as part of a high-speed train system, or inside a hotel or restaurant, or a municipal lighting system, or within the energy grid itself.

But the industrial IoT has far more stringent requirements than the consumer IoT, including the need for no-compromise control, rock-solid security, unfailing reliability even in harsh (extremely hot or cold, dusty, humid, noisy, inconvenient) environments, and the ability to operate with little or no human intervention. And unlike more recently designed consumer-level devices, many of the billion or so industrial devices already operating on existing networks were put in place to withstand the test of time, often measured in decades.

The differences between the IIoT and IoT are not just a matter of slight degree or semantics. If your Fitbit or Nest device fails, it might be inconvenient. But if a train braking system fails, it could be a matter of life and death.

Misconception 2: The IIoT is always about, as Bradford describes it, devices that “push and pull status and command information from the networked world.”

The consumer IoT is synonymous with functions that affect human-perceived comfort, security, and efficiency. In contrast, many industrial networks have basic operating roles and needs that do not require, and in fact are not helped by, human intervention. Think of operations that must happen too quickly — or too reliably, or too frequently, or from too harsh or remote an environment — to make it practical to “push and pull status and command information” to or from any kind of centralized anything, be it an Internet server or the cloud.

A major goal for the IIoT, then, must be to help autonomous communities of devices to operate more effectively, peer to peer, without relying on exchanging data beyond their communities. One challenge now is that various communications protocols have been established for specific types of industrial devices (e.g., for building automation, or lighting, or transportation) that are incompatible with one another. Internet Protocol (IP) could serve as a unifying communications pathway within industrial communities of devices, improving peer-to-peer communications.

Misconception 3: The problem is that industrial device owners aren’t interested in, or actively resist, connecting our smart devices together.

If IP were extended all the way to industrial devices, another advantage is that they could also participate, as appropriate, beyond peer-to-peer communities. Individually, industrial devices generate the “small data” that, in the aggregate, combines to become the “big data” used for IoT analytics and intelligent control. IIoT devices that are IP-enabled could retain their ability to operate without human intervention, yet still receive input or provide small-data output via the IoT.

But unlike most consumer IoT scenarios, which involve digital devices that already have IP support built in or that can be IP enabled easily, typical IIoT scenarios involve pre-IP legacy devices. And unfortunately, IP enablement isn’t free. Industrial device owners need a direct economic benefit to justify IP enabling their non-IP devices. Alternatively, they need a way to gain the benefits of IP without giving up their investments in their existing industrial devices — that is, without stranding these valuable industrial assets.

Rather than seeing industrial device owners as barriers to progress, we should be looking for ways to help industrial devices become as connected as appropriate — for example, for improved peer-to-peer operation and to contribute their important small data to the larger big-data picture of the IoT.

So, what is the real IIoT opportunity no one’s talking about?

The real opportunity of the IIoT is not to pretend that it’s the same as the IoT, but rather to provide industrial device networks with an affordable and easy migration path to IP.

This approach is not an “excuse for trying to patch up, or hide behind, outdated technology” that Bradford talks about. Rather, it’s a chance to offer multi-protocol, multimedia solutions that recognize and embrace the special considerations and, yes, constraints of the industrial world — which include myriad existing protocols, devices installed for their reliability and longevity, the need for both wired and wireless connections in some environments, and so on. This approach will build bridges to the IIoT, so that any given community of devices can achieve its full potential — the IzoT platform I’ve been working on at Echelon aims to accomplish this.

If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter — and to learn more about the Solid Conference coming to San Francisco in May, visit the Solid website.

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