The industrial IoT journey is only just beginning

30 Jan 2017

Senior leaders agree that the foundations for the industrial IoT have already been laid. Image: Natali Glado/Shutterstock

The cogs and wheels of the industrial internet of things are already beginning to turn, say senior leaders of some of the world’s most advanced industries.

At the recent IoT World Forum in Dublin, we spoke to senior leaders from industrial giant Johnson Controls, transport giant Maersk Line and internet of things system integration player IoT WoRKS by HCL.

While the internet of things (IoT) is a business category that tech companies talk about in futuristic terms, the reality is that in the industrial world the groundwork has already been laid.

‘We have literally billions of deployed sensors currently, and every day we add more to that network’

Donal Sullivan, VP and general manager at Johnson Controls in Cork, said that the global company is already an internet of things business. The company is the world’s largest heating ventilation and air conditioning provider. It is active in building management systems and has a large power business focused on the car battery industry.

“If you think of the changes in cars going forward – autonomous driving, anti-collision systems, etc – there are power needs that are critical that you can’t lose, otherwise catastrophic things could happen. So there are lots of different parts of our business that are connected in really interesting ways,” Sullivan explained.

“We have literally billions of deployed sensors currently, and every day we add more to that network. And what we are seeing is interesting things happen. The cost of sensors are going down dramatically, the cost of telecoms is going down and the cost of data storage retrieval and security around data – all of those drivers are moving in the right direction.

“So you are seeing real momentum start to happen and things that you couldn’t do before are now possible because the economics make sense.

“A lot of the use cases we would have looked at before, and found difficult to do, are now possible to do and bring real value to our existing and new customer bases; new services that we can offer on top of industrial products and services that we traditionally offered,” Sullivan told IoT World Forum.

Ship shape

Catja Hjorth Rasmussen, head of Remote Container Management at Maersk Line, said that the shipping giant has already taken a bold step into the world of intelligent machines.

“Five years ago, we started looking at wanting to create a solution for our refrigerated containers,” she said. “Basically we wanted to know everything the container knows. The container is quite an intelligent box that controls temperature, power supply and more.

‘It might well be in 10 years time that we will see containers lifted by drones and moved around, but we are certainly not there yet. There is still some time to go’

“We started developing a solution that enables us to track all of these refrigerated containers that we have in our fleet and now, five years later, we have installations on nearly 270,000 containers, as well as satellite installations on board our vessels in the fleet.

“That gives us a lot of data and is really one of the things that is Maersk Line’s take on IoT. First of all, having a fully equipped fleet that generates data, but the next step is you need to develop a technology to get the optimum out of the data and we are on that journey now, but there is still a lot to learn.”

I ask Hjorth if data is the new oil for Maersk. She said that the company is not quite at that stage just yet.

“The shipping industry is quite conservative and it took five years to get to a point from idea to fully implemented and operational solution. Our challenge in the industry is the IoT revolution is growing extremely fast compared to the shipping industry. It might well be in 10 years time that we will see containers lifted by drones and moved around, but we are certainly not there yet. There is still some time to go.”

So are robotic ships still far off in the future? “I think so, but it has to go that way. But I still believe there is a long way before we see full automation because there is still always the safety element of having some people on board to ensure safety is what it should be. But I am quite sure that maybe having vessels that are operated by machines, that’s not too far in the future.”

Laying the foundations of industrial IoT

According to Kai Brasche, VP and global head of sales and business development at IoT WoRKS by HCL, much of the groundwork and plumbing for the internet of things world has already been laid.

“Generally speaking, from a systems integration standpoint, the first level of digitalisation is done.”

‘Joining these systems together will be complex’

However, he added: “We have to think about what is the right business model to bring about the right outcomes.”

Brasche said that joining thousands of sensors with existing business and manufacturing systems will be complex.

“The technology is in place so that it is not an issue. But now we have to consider what we would like to achieve to bring out the value and optimise internal processes to enlarge and enhance the business to bring more value to the end customer.

“It is complex because we now have to think about putting engineering capabilities in place to also validate infrastructure that is technology-agnostic, to bring brownfield environments closer to the new business, as well as greenfield activities.

“Beside that, we have to think about system integration of the next dimension, meaning we have to take care of existing systems like CRM and manufacturing.” Joining these systems together will be complex, he warned.

“And we are only at the start of that.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years