The Next Big Thing

The Internet of Things v2.0 is coming, and its implications are huge

A total overhaul of both manufacturing and daily life is on the horizon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 2015, 6:06am

A meaningless tech buzzword or an epoch-defining phrase? This year will see the debut of hundreds of novelty appliances claiming to be both smart and part of the much-hyped Internet of Things - such as doorbell apps, water-sprinklers controlled by a smartphone, and even a Bluetooth-connected kettle.

Gadgets remotely operated by smartphones are not the limit of the Internet of Things. It's more about another wave of streamlining to create and expand companies, and even entire industries, that are much more responsive and efficient - and dominated by robotics.

The Internet of Things means everyday objects getting online, connected via the cloud, and talking to each other with anyone getting involved. It usually involves sensors that combine in ever more impressive ways. The first wave is here and includes activity trackers that record your movements and geographical position, baby monitors that measure breathing and skin temperature, and smart Wi-fi light bulbs that can be programmed via a smartphone.

The much more impressive second wave is coming; drive home from work and your car will instruct your home to switch on the air-con and the oven when you're 10 minutes away - only after consulting upcoming traffic conditions.

Largely concerned with automation in ever more complex, but time-saving ways, the Internet of Things is a concept, not a reality. While media attention has been on gadgets and home appliances, the real revolution is going on far away from homes and cars in factories, in power plants, warehouses and in the container ships that ply the oceans and keep global trade going. This is the Industrial Internet of Things.

"The Industrial IoT is about bringing Internet of Things concepts to the manufacturing and operations of industries including discrete manufacturing, process manufacturing, resource industries including oil and gas, mining and agriculture," says Christopher Holmes, head of IDC Insights for Asia-Pacific. "Industrial IoT takes the robots and machine tools that are critical in the manufacturing process and connecting them into a cloud server that is running real-time analytics." The Industrial Internet of Things puts big data to work to create more informed decisions. For example, if everything in a factory is fitted with sensors, from all that data collected and analysed, it's possible to track a piece of equipment, or even a maintenance engineer, as they move about a location. Got a broken machine? The closest engineer can be contacted the second it breaks down, improving response times and reducing downtime, thereby increasing production. It's an easy sell in competitive markets, and it could soon be the norm.

There's predictive technology at work, too. "Sensors on the equipment alert workers to either an actual breakdown, or an impending breakdown, allowing a fast response to replace the part, and to adjust the manufacturing schedule for minimal disruption to the manufacturing process," Holmes says.

Just as it's now possible to log on to your desktop PC at home even if you're on the other side of the world, the Industrial Internet of Things is also about operating machinery remotely, any time and virtually anywhere. "If you're a global business, and you have machines in plants in disparate regions, but you don't have the skills to fix and maintain them, then a wirelessly connected machine, remotely monitored from afar, lets you bypass the local IT team," says Mike Troiano, vice-president of Industrial Internet of Things Solutions at AT&T.

The ramifications of connecting everything are huge. Companies that make heavy machinery will switch to being service providers. "For industrial equipment, such as earth movers … the customer pays for the amount of earth moved, or the availability of the piece of equipment to move earth," Holmes says.

This is the real "digital economy" analysts have been talking about for decades, but it's early days; 99 per cent of everything is still unconnected, though Cisco predicts that by 2020 there will be 50 billion things connected to the internet

Improvement in IoT and robotics will transform manufacturing
Christopher Holmes, head of IDC Insights for Asia-Pacific

However, there is one giant, global sector that is quickly embracing smart technology. "Anyone who's shipped goods internationally will know that it's often a mystery as to where those goods are," Troiano says. "For an art dealer we just tracked a very expensive piece of artwork from Japan to New York," he says, citing a sensor device which is part of AT&T's FlightSafe service. "We tracked its location and put shock sensors on the painting, so if there was any damage she could tell exactly where it happened, and which freight-forwarder or airline was responsible."

The dealer had previously paid for an employee to travel with paintings, but they obviously didn't travel in the belly of the aircraft with each one, so they were of limited use if damage did occur. "AT&T FlightSafe is designed to go into the cargo hold of an aircraft," says Troiano. "It goes into 'airplane mode' during the flight, but it's still collecting data. When the airline touches down it starts to send data back over the cellular network."

On a much bigger scale there are now companies that track pallets of goods around the world from port to container ship to plane to truck to warehouse. It's now possible to monitor, say, a shipment of seafood from anywhere on the globe and both see exactly where it is and be assured that it has remained within a specific temperature range and humidity for the entire journey.

Such tracking technology along with the general automation of hi-tech manufacturing will have a profound effect on industrial hubs such as Shenzhen, and on cities such as Hong Kong. "The improvement in IoT, automation and robotics is going to transform manufacturing," Holmes says. "The whole notion of manufacturing will change … we will see massive improvements in efficiency, with a reduction in labour as automation and robotics increasingly become cost effective, and also more flexible."

Holmes calls these "factories of the future", which will change what kind of people live in Shenzhen. "[There will be fewer] blue-collar factory workers, and more white-collar engineers, who will design and develop both the product and the manufacturing process."

As robots replace workers and engineers increasingly control machines remotely, there will be far less need for companies with operations in Shenzhen to have offices there. "With the Internet of Things adoption comes the ability … for companies to headquarter in attractive cities, but have all their operations spread across the world, yet manage them in real time, from their headquarters," Holmes says.

The Industrial Internet of Things will soon wire up cities, too. The futuristic city will constantly draw in data from countless sensors and cameras to, say, match public transport to public demand and location, it will intelligently reroute traffic on a citywide scale to save time and fuel, and it will make sure no product ever goes out of stock on a supermarket shelf. But if we lose too many jobs to robotics and automation, the Internet of Things on an industrial scale could have a sting in its tail.