Full steam ahead for Ireland in the Age of the Machines

20 Mar 2017

Image: Chamille White/Shutterstock

Countries like Ireland have all the moving parts for success in the internet of things world. They just need to join the dots.

March of the Machines

I have a tendency to repeat myself, especially on stage at conferences. A lot of the time, while I try to illustrate why I believe this little powerhouse of a country I call home has industrial prowess, I breathlessly intone how, when Intel came to Ireland in 1989 ,it set up in a little office within a car showroom on the Long Mile Road.

Six years later, in the mid-90s, when the PC revolution was in full steam, half the Pentium processors in the world came out of Leixlip, Co Kildare.

‘As manufacturing moves towards the internet of things, it is crucial that we have access to graduates who are trained in state-of-the-art facilities’

The last time I trotted out this worthy allegory for how Ireland could succeed in the next industrial revolution was at a Tyndall Technology Days event in Croke Park last October.

Afterwards, off stage, I had one ear on what one person was saying to me while scanning the room for where the coffee might be found. Suddenly, out of the throng emerged Eamonn Sinnott, country manager for Intel Ireland’s 4,000-strong manufacturing operation. “You may need to update your figures, John,” Sinnott said, smiling. “We now make half of the world’s supply of 14-nanometre processors.”

This is significant. It puts Ireland at the bleeding edge of sophistication when it comes to making chips for the cloud – but also the internet of things – and secures the chip plant’s future for a long time to come.

The Intel story reminded me of the occasion back in the 1990s when IBM brought a call centre investment to Mulhuddart, which was soon followed by manufacturing and more.

After decades as a sales outpost, then-country manager William Burgess had higher ambitions and was intent on bringing further investment into Ireland. At the opening of the call centre, someone among the assembled press and dignitaries made a dry remark about call centre jobs not being very high-end. Burgess remarked back that this would only be the beginning.

He was right. Today, IBM employs over 3,000 people across a vast tech campus in west Dublin that is engaged in a variety of very high-end activities from R&D to cloud, software, analytics, design, internet of things and cognitive computing.

The examples of IBM and Intel are a testimony to the ambitions of talented local management who see beyond the horizon and the limitations, and think big.

Are we ready for the next industrial revolution? You betcha!

The machines age, or the internet of things age, is being characterised as the next industrial revolution, or Industrial Revolution 4.0. It will take all the sophistication of our smartphones and personal computers, matched with a tapestry of sensors joined together by wireless networks, data centres and the cloud. It will mean data gathering at a pace never seen before and the crunching of that data in real-time.

For historical and economic reasons, Ireland definitely missed out on the first industrial revolution and narrowly saw some of the tracks laid for the steam age. But when it comes to the age of sensors and robots, will we have an edge?

The economic quagmire of post-empire Ireland saw several decades of talent waste until the economic and educational policies of Lemass and TK Whitaker turned the Irish from the flotsam and jetsam lost on the tides of the world into a vibrant raw material that would finally bring the gold home.

This time around, the visionaries won’t be just local managers of multinationals, they will be entrepreneurs and academics who see an opportunity to steal a march on the march of the machines.

The island of things

The reason I believe a small country like Ireland could bound ahead in the internet of things (IoT) revolution – and associate revolutions in the form of artificial intelligence and machine learning – is because I have already seen the evidence.

The industrial revolution 4.0, as it pertains to Ireland, won’t be just a multinational job creation movement, it will be an indigenous effort too.

And, as PCH founder Liam Casey famously remarked, in this new industrial revolution “geography will be history”.

PCH is integral to the design and delivery of the high-end smart devices consumers crave globally, while IBM, HP, SAP, Vodafone, Analog Devices, Intel, Qualcomm, SAS, EMC and many others are working on IoT in Ireland.

Dublin-headquartered Cubic Telecom is behind the technology powering the wireless hotspots in the newest Audi vehicles and has attracted an €18m co-investment from the German car giant and Qualcomm.

Last year, DecaWave revealed that it now has 1m installations of its internet of things chips, which are capable of finding anything to within 10 centimetres.

The metaphor of Pentium is no accident, and Irish company Movidius has developed a chip technology that will, in effect, be the Pentium of the machine age, capable of machine-learning and doing things like enabling smartphones to sense the dimensions of a room. It was no accident, therefore, that Intel acquired Movidius last year for a rumoured $300m.

Ireland was also recently selected as the latest location for an Intel internet of things Innovation & Development Ignition Lab, where Intel will collaborate with local companies to develop technologies for the IoT marketplace.

Dairymaster, a Kerry company investing big time in agritech R&D, utilises sensors, accelerometers and GPS to good effect, with genuinely innovative devices that help with the complex nature of farming.

There is also the $2m investment by Taoglas in an IoT centre in San Diego. The Wexford company’s IoTx Centre is the first facility of its kind in North America. Taoglas, which develops antenna technologies for IoT, actually makes an annual turnover of around €32m and has ploughed its profits back into the company.

On the research front, academic and industrial collaborations facilitated by groups like Tyndall, Amber, CRANN, Insight, Connect, Adapt and TSSG have put Ireland on the world stage for IoT-related breakthroughs.

In Cork and Waterford, research institutes Tyndall and TSSG have signed a memorandum of understanding to draw down €82m from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme to fund 10 IoT start-ups. Both bodies are also leading the charge on collaboration in fields like smart agriculture, where IoT sensors and smart grids could transform what is still Ireland’s biggest industry.

In recent weeks, we reported how Artomatix, a Dublin-based artificial intelligence company founded by Trinity PhD graduate Eric Risser, raised €2.1m in a seed round.

The Mayo town of Crossmolina is going to be the first town in Ireland to roll out a smart lighting system. US tech firm Silver Spring Networks, whose technology manages 23.6m devices in cities across the world, has deployed an IoT network canopy for Mayo County Council for smart street lighting, and a residential energy-efficiency project for the council, with the project being funded in part by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).

Last year, VT Networks completed the rollout of a nationwide Sigfox network across Ireland.

Large mobile operators like Vodafone and Three are also spearheading a lot of the action on the machines age front.

Two years ago, Vodafone embarked on a €2m industrial IoT venture with Dell-owned EMC in Cork.

Vodafone Ireland CTO Madalina Succeveanu recently revealed that Ireland will be one of the first countries where the telecoms giant will trial NB-IoT, the wireless standard mobile operators are backing for the IoT world.

Currently, around 12pc of mobile connections in Ireland are machine-to-machine (M2M). Three is responsible for 50.1pc of that figure, according to recent ComReg figures.

Three’s CTO David Hennessy told Siliconrepublic.com that NB-IoT will also be arriving on its networks in Ireland. “We have a big 4G network and the intention will be to provide NB-IoT on that in the next 18 months,” he said.

A meeting of minds and machines

Full steam ahead for Ireland in the Age of the Machines

The new Coonagh campus in Limerick will be an IoT powerhouse. Image: Limerick IT

While all of this activity is positive, there are still barriers to entry when it comes to accessing talent and bringing indigenous companies into the fold as a hyper-connected, data-centric world becomes a reality.

The key here is education. While Ireland slowly brings coding onto its second-level curriculum, new ideas and new approaches will also be required at third level.

Hybrid degrees that bridge business, software, hardware and logistics will need to be formulated.

The entire approach to traditional areas like supply chain management (SCM), for example, will need to be re-imagined, with academic qualifications that take SCM from the clipboard in a warehouse to orchestrating the movement of goods at a global level.

Computer science, for too long focused solely on software, will need to be repurposed and brought back to its traditional foundations in hardware and electrical engineering. TSSG at Waterford Institute of Technology is already on the case on this one, and has devised the world’s first internet of things degree designed specifically for computer science students.

In December, Limerick Institute of Technology got the go-ahead for a €14m campus at Coonagh, which will be an IoT engineering and manufacturing centre of excellence.

“As manufacturing moves towards the internet of things, it is crucial that we have access to graduates who are trained in state-of-the-art facilities,” said Denis Doyle, vice-president and general manager in charge of US and Ireland manufacturing operations at ‎Analog Devices.

It is clear that Ireland has all the moving parts, bright and ambitious executives, and a track record that belies the country’s scale on the global stage.

Just as Liam Casey said that geography is history, Ireland can nimbly navigate the issues of scale and become a world leader in the machine age.

All it takes is ambition, imagination and hard work. Qualities we have in spades.

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