The IIoT Platform: What It Is and Where It's Taking Us
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s an old adage, and as I suggested in my last blog post, it’s applicable when we look at the limited advancements in software technology over the past decades. When it comes to the challenges faced by the manufacturing industries, and legacy technology’s ability to address them, not much has changed. For various reasons, many organizations still struggle with the same things they did 10 or 20 years ago.
I also suggested that the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is a revolutionary rather than evolutionary technology advancement—with the potential to provide a step change that can break this trend.
In this post, I want to get a little bit more into the “how” and “why” of the IIoT—the specific technology capabilities needed to advance its adoption, and the real opportunity on the ground for manufacturers.
The Four Legs of the IIoT Platform
At LNS Research, we see four major technology capability areas that are needed to really enable the full capabilities of Smart Connected Assets, Smart Connected Operations and eventually the Smart Connected Enterprise:
- Connectivity: Where the Platform itself is foundational to the IIoT, you can think about Connectivity being foundational to the platform. This is a large bucket of capability that includes all the necessary hardware and software needed for networking within the plant and the enterprise as a whole. It also includes the standards and technologies that integrate machines, clouds, applications, devices, etc., enabling the collection and migration of data and the triggering of events.
- Cloud: This is not necessarily one specific cloud, but rather refers to all clouds used within the enterprise to put computing and storage capabilities in all the different places they’re needed—within the plant, at the edge, at the enterprise level, and outside the firewall.
- Big Data Analytics: For the IIoT to be truly unleashed, we need to capture and analyze massive amounts of both structured and unstructured data, and the analytics tools of yesteryear are not up to the task. Today’s Big Data Analytics tools cleanse, monitor, and analyze this data and are a key piece of the puzzle.
- Application Development: Application Development is really where the utility of the IIoT Platform comes into play. As I’ll discuss more below in the opportunities, we need to be able to quickly develop mashup software applications that combine all of the above areas of the IIoT Platform is needed. This is critical when connecting legacy applications on top of the Platform as well.
The figure below gives you more detail on the specifics of each of these codependent IIoT Platform enablers.
It’s easy to see that there’s a lot at play here in these key areas. For example, it is important to remember:
- Security should be built in rather than added on to the IIoT platform
- The IIoT platform is a combination of hardware and software across IT and OT
- One size does not fit all, there will be a combination of approaches to cloud, communication protocols, and types of analytics.
It is also important to remember these are still early days for the IIoT. A full platform will be delivered by an ecosystem of vendors and there isn’t yet a single solution provider that can completely check off all of these boxes. This is OK. This fact belies the significant amount of time, effort, and investment the vendor community is putting into the IIoT platform and it may not be long before singular capabilities are a reality.
For now, you should be looking at solution providers that have aggressively pursued both their own developments as well as partnerships that complement whatever shortcomings they may have in this graphic.
Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks—Creating New Value out of Heterogeneous Systems
So what’s the biggest opportunity here? Isn’t manufacturing growing globally, with new plants popping up closer to centers of distribution and consumption? Yes and yes, and the IIoT will certainly play a role there. However, what everyone knows within the industry is that the majority of manufacturers have many, many legacy systems that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
And this is where the major opportunities really lie. Rather than imagining Smart Connected Operations as being associated with shiny new buildings and conceived with the first shovel of ceremonial dirt, we need to be thinking of how we can transform existing plants and their heterogeneous system makeup to deliver new sources of value and even revenue streams.
In fact, investments in the Connectivity portions of the IIoT Platform and adoption of new standards like OPC-UA is where much of the initial innovation is happening in the space and will form the foundation for much of the value add that comes from big data analytics and the development of new mashup software applications.
Further, over time as the above platform solidifies, the traditional hierarchical architecture will converge and flatten out as solution providers port or re-write existing applications to run on top of IIoT platforms.
While the functions of these levels 0-5 may be relevant to the old ways of doing business, the information transfer will no longer be hierarchical between the levels, eliminating the dependency of integration between traditional systems and creating a data from anywhere to anywhere environment.
The technology is ready and the potential for new business models and revenue streams is here today. Only one question remains…
Is now the time manufacturers will take those first steps on the IIoT journey and connect heterogeneous systems to finally create a true shop-floor-to-top-floor, connected environment?