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The Internet of Things: Use it now!

The benefits of connecting “things” via the Internet are often discussed in terms of consumer-facing outcomes, such as a refrigerator ordering milk when needed, a washing machine running when electricity prices are low, or the many uses for the “wearables” that people use to track and deliver data about their actions in real time.

These benefits are also readily available; major appliance and technology brands actively compete to offer consumers performance data and tools, which also inform the big data insights that make the benefits of those connected services more useful and meaningful.

While such benefits will become more robust as the consumer IoT evolves – more things will be connected, and more data will be collected, crunched, and repurposed – there’s no reason why individuals can’t participate right now, via a simple retail purchase and online subscription. The barriers to entry are negligible.

The industrial utility of the IoT used to be another story

The acronym may be familiar, but it represents a different, more complex and nuanced equation, since the individuals involved in it aren’t the sources of data, but rather the users of it. While the “things” are what get monitored and measured, the users of those insights don’t necessarily have to be human but, in many cases, can be automated and/or machine-learning processes. Further, the functioning of any industrial IoT-based system needs to be particularly accurate, robust, and secure, since we’re talking about valuable devices, business operations, and proprietary company performance results.

If your wearable fails to give you an accurate reading of how far you’ve run, it’s merely a nuisance. If an industrial system fails to properly regulate a multi-million dollar machine, the risks of financial and even physical damage are far more serious.

This means the barriers to entry for the industrial IoT have been higher, at least up to now.

The common assumption has been that something miraculous will happen when devices of all kinds are connected sometime around 2025, if not further in the future, and that realising benefits will require costly, all-encompassing systems and complex management regimes. It’s expected that adoption will occur first at the biggest installations that have the money and the time to make it happen.

We at ABB have a different, and perhaps unique perspective: We’re focused on innovating ways to deliver those tangible outcomes right now. In fact, we’ve been doing it for years, primarily by focusing on the integration and interaction of things, services, and people, particularly in the area of factory or plant-wide installations.

Business leaders don’t want to “buy” the industrial IoT; rather, they want to drive competitive advantage using available technology, while keeping their strategic options open to build upon and further refine and monetize their investments. They want outcomes - benefits, just like consumers.

Faster. More efficient. Less costly. Safer. Better for the environment.

So our centre of competence in Bangalore, India, has been monitoring more than 5,000 robots for customers around the world since 2006. A similar centre in Europe has been connected to gearless mill drives since 2011, and our Integrated Marine Operations Center has been watching over more than 500 ocean-going vessels for many years.

The concept of sensing device performance that underlies the very premise of the industrial Internet of Things is an established practice for us. As a leading global provider of automation and network control systems, we’ve been manufacturing and supporting “things” equipped with sensors since long before the advent of the Internet. This has given us deep insights, not only in how to connect such devices, but also in ways to operationalise those insights into usable services that let our customers make decisions with meaningful outcomes.

For instance, next week we’ll debut a smart sensor that can attach to any low-voltage motor, of any make or age, and yield immediately actionable insights on its operating condition via an easy-to-use smartphone app. Considering the many millions of such motors in operation worldwide (the average small/medium factory can have as many as 1,000 of them), and the fact that they’re often serviced somewhat infrequently, or only when they break down, the implications for productivity and efficiency are huge.

Also, if you consider the environment as the corollary of consumer “health,” the implications for more efficient motor function are even greater. Back in 2002, the US Department of Energy was already saying that “electric-driven motor systems used in industrial processes consumed 23 per cent of all electricity sold in the United States,” and that energy use could be reduced “by 1 to 18 per cent” simply by using existing, proven technologies and practices.

Sensing the basic performance of a motor, called “condition monitoring,” qualifies as one such practice. Our solution marries that thinking with proprietary tools to make insights from a sensing device actionable in a way that is easier, faster, and more economical than ever before.

That means our offering will democratise participation, and allow small and medium-sized factories to enjoy the benefits this year, not some time in a far-off future. Customers will start seeing operational benefits from the first day they attach our “wearable for motors” sensors. Further, linking those devices with services and people will provide a platform that can be extended and deepened as those oft-promised additional benefits of Internet connectivity become cost-effective to implement.

Imagine that using your smartphone to, say, track your heartbeat during a jog required that you hire a consultant to develop a strategy for you, and then a technical architect to create and implement the system, followed by a management and maintenance program that not only demanded that you stay focused on it much of the time, but couldn’t function properly unless it was enabled to analyze a number of other parts of your body.

If that were the case, the Internet of Things wouldn’t be a “thing” that you’d want to buy, even if you could afford it.

Our vision for the industrial Internet of Things is that it should be strategic and simple and that our understanding of it must extend beyond technology innovation to include innovating the services from which people benefit from it.

The Internet for delivering those outcomes is available right now.

Christopher Ganz, IoTSP Program Manager, ABB

Image Credit: Chesky / Shutterstock