Smoothing the road to IoT adoption with a layer approach

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Industry 4.0, with the Internet of Things (IoT) at its heart, is set to become the biggest disruptor in manufacturing since the industrial revolution. International Data Corporation (IDC) research estimates the spend on global IoT will top $1.29 trillion by 2020 and Industrial IoT accounts for a significant proportion of this. With such huge investments being made into everything from robotic assembly lines to environmental sensors designed to improve plant efficiency, it’s increasingly clear that IoT is going to be a big part of industry going forward.

Despite the hype, 75% of Internet of Things (IoT) pilots fail. Yet, thousands of businesses are still prepared to take the calculated risk. So given that it is clear that enterprises see the value in IoT, how can they make the leap while minimising the risk of disruption to their business? 

De-risking the situation

There are a number of factors to consider when looking to introduce a low-risk IoT project and they are universal regardless of sector. However, with the number of IoT units used in the agriculture industry is expected to reach 16 million units in 2025, let’s look at how the risks associated with IoT can be minimised.   

The first rule of IoT is take a ‘business first’ approach.  Any project that uses IoT for the sake of it is doomed to failure. Unless there’s a clear plan that outlines how connected devices and the data generated by them can be used to improve operations, it’s a non-starter. This may seem like IoT 101, but the sheer number of IoT failures on the market highlights that while anything can be connected, not all of it is going to benefit the bottom line. Taking the agriculture example, there is no point introducing an IoT-powered watering system if this doesn’t add any more value than the timer systems currently in place. Having clear goals, and only connecting devices that will support them, will help ensure an IoT project that has the strongest chance of delivering ROI.

Beyond this, there are three essentials when it comes to developing a sound IoT strategy – minimising CAPEX, avoiding business disruption, and ensuring the IoT does not introduce additional security weaknesses.  

Minimising costs and disruption 

There’s no shortage of new IoT-enabled machinery for those embracing Industry 4.0. Many enterprises will choose to replace all existing equipment with IoT-ready counterparts, but there’s another way to approach this evolution which comes with a much smaller price tag.

Ripping and replacing equipment is an expensive move, not least because manufacturers have invested huge sums into their current infrastructure. A better solution, then, is to add a connected layer to existing equipment. In commercial plant breeding, for example, a layer of environmental sensors can be introduced into greenhouse environments. The result is an infrastructure set up that allows organisations to take advantage of the data, insights and automation offered by IIoT, without the huge upfront costs. It is a case of being able to make the most of what they already have rather than a complete overhaul that does not necessarily guarantee ROI in the short term.

Keeping business as usual

Not only this, but by avoiding the need to entirely rip and replace, plant breeders can mitigate the business disruption associated with installing new equipment and also the teething problems involved in ensuring it works seamlessly. The IIoT layer can be added quickly and easily, with minimal impact on the day-to-day running of the organisation, particularly important when keeping the greenhouse environment consistent is crucial to the business. 

This approach also allows for far more agility. Projects can be adapted quickly and easily to ensure maximum return. If an IoT project is not delivering in the way a they are expecting, it can be easily tweaked and refined time and time again. This versatility reduces the risk of a failed IoT project and  does not impact core business goals due to system downtime.

Curbing the security risk 

A significant concern for any enterprise when introducing an IIoT layer to their existing infrastructure is security. Suffering a cyber security breach can be devastating for any business, and if a network infiltrator can adjust the environmental sensors of a vegetable farming business, for example, it can have a serious knock on effect on output and profits. There’s a perception that legacy equipment isn’t fit for purpose when it comes to tackling security threats, but that’s a misnomer. It depends on how the IIoT layer is implemented.

Bringing network connectivity to legacy equipment naturally increases a manufacturer’s potential avenues for attack. However, a way to mitigate this is to use technology such as an industrial device server, which can connect legacy equipment to the network while maintaining strong data encryption standards. 

Rather than pairing each industrial device to a controlling PC and connecting it to the internet that way, a device server is purpose-built to mitigate risk as it keeps potential attack points on the network to a minimum. Advanced vendors can even add an additional layer of protection with on-site authentication restrictions before the device server can be accessed. This security is critical, in an agricultural environment where tampering with temperature and lighting can have a serious impact on the success and yield of produce, it is essential the benefits offered by IoT are not offset by the risks introduced by opening backdoors to hackers.

Addressing the need for low-cost flexibility

Industry 4.0 seems to be issuing manufacturers with an ultimatum of adapt now or risk being left behind. Yet a successful IIoT project depends on getting a lot of things right. As it’s unchartered waters for many organisations and their in-house teams, that’s not always easy. However, a layered approach to introducing IoT connectivity is a simple way to avoid the common pitfalls. Its low cost and flexibility means that manufacturers can experiment with their IIoT configurations until they find a set-up that’s right for them. 

Not only will this see approach see ROI realised on a much shorter timescale, it’ll allow manufacturers to reap the benefits of IIoT without compromising on security or risking business disruption. 

Joachim Sturmhoefel, Managing Director at SEH Technology 

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