The Industrial IoT isn’t the same as the consumer IoT

We need a better approach to build bridges to the IIoT.

Reading Kipp Bradford’s recent article, The Industrial Internet of Things: The opportunity no one’s talking about, got me thinking about commonly held misconceptions about what the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is — as well as what it’s not.

Misconception 1: The IIoT is the same as the consumer Internet of Things (IoT), except it’s located on a factory floor somewhere.

This misconception is easy to understand, given that both the IIoT and the consumer IoT have that “Internet of Things” term in common. Yes, the IIoT includes devices located in industrial settings: maybe a factory floor, or perhaps as part of a high-speed train system, or inside a hotel or restaurant, or a municipal lighting system, or within the energy grid itself.

But the industrial IoT has far more stringent requirements than the consumer IoT, including the need for no-compromise control, rock-solid security, unfailing reliability even in harsh (extremely hot or cold, dusty, humid, noisy, inconvenient) environments, and the ability to operate with little or no human intervention. And unlike more recently designed consumer-level devices, many of the billion or so industrial devices already operating on existing networks were put in place to withstand the test of time, often measured in decades.

The differences between the IIoT and IoT are not just a matter of slight degree or semantics. If your Fitbit or Nest device fails, it might be inconvenient. But if a train braking system fails, it could be a matter of life and death.

Misconception 2: The IIoT is always about, as Bradford describes it, devices that “push and pull status and command information from the networked world.”

The consumer IoT is synonymous with functions that affect human-perceived comfort, security, and efficiency. In contrast, many industrial networks have basic operating roles and needs that do not require, and in fact are not helped by, human intervention. Think of operations that must happen too quickly — or too reliably, or too frequently, or from too harsh or remote an environment — to make it practical to “push and pull status and command information” to or from any kind of centralized anything, be it an Internet server or the cloud.

A major goal for the IIoT, then, must be to help autonomous communities of devices to operate more effectively, peer to peer, without relying on exchanging data beyond their communities. One challenge now is that various communications protocols have been established for specific types of industrial devices (e.g., for building automation, or lighting, or transportation) that are incompatible with one another. Internet Protocol (IP) could serve as a unifying communications pathway within industrial communities of devices, improving peer-to-peer communications.

Misconception 3: The problem is that industrial device owners aren’t interested in, or actively resist, connecting our smart devices together.

If IP were extended all the way to industrial devices, another advantage is that they could also participate, as appropriate, beyond peer-to-peer communities. Individually, industrial devices generate the “small data” that, in the aggregate, combines to become the “big data” used for IoT analytics and intelligent control. IIoT devices that are IP-enabled could retain their ability to operate without human intervention, yet still receive input or provide small-data output via the IoT.

But unlike most consumer IoT scenarios, which involve digital devices that already have IP support built in or that can be IP enabled easily, typical IIoT scenarios involve pre-IP legacy devices. And unfortunately, IP enablement isn’t free. Industrial device owners need a direct economic benefit to justify IP enabling their non-IP devices. Alternatively, they need a way to gain the benefits of IP without giving up their investments in their existing industrial devices — that is, without stranding these valuable industrial assets.

Rather than seeing industrial device owners as barriers to progress, we should be looking for ways to help industrial devices become as connected as appropriate — for example, for improved peer-to-peer operation and to contribute their important small data to the larger big-data picture of the IoT.

So, what is the real IIoT opportunity no one’s talking about?

The real opportunity of the IIoT is not to pretend that it’s the same as the IoT, but rather to provide industrial device networks with an affordable and easy migration path to IP.

This approach is not an “excuse for trying to patch up, or hide behind, outdated technology” that Bradford talks about. Rather, it’s a chance to offer multi-protocol, multimedia solutions that recognize and embrace the special considerations and, yes, constraints of the industrial world — which include myriad existing protocols, devices installed for their reliability and longevity, the need for both wired and wireless connections in some environments, and so on. This approach will build bridges to the IIoT, so that any given community of devices can achieve its full potential — the IzoT platform I’ve been working on at Echelon aims to accomplish this.

If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter — and to learn more about the Solid Conference coming to San Francisco in May, visit the Solid website.

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  • Dave Hofert

    Varun, I generally agree with you on this article, but I think that you as well miss the value of the broader connection. You are definitely correct that many of these systems need to operate in a controlled space within well-managed parameters. That’s the nature of electro-mechanical equipment.

    The nature of IoT is, in my view, to collect a wide range of information together, draw conclusions about operational or business aspects, and deliver updated intelligence back out to the edge. I’ll note that I view “intelligence” as business logic + context on some given processing power. More context/logic makes things smarter; more processing power makes them faster.

    So, the goal we all work towards is collecting operational information and modeling it within the context it works in. You mention train braking systems – so when do they fail? What are the causes? Can we anticipate failure? What would we measure? The process starts with collecting say temperature, strain, duration of brake application, etc. from as many trains as possible – baseline data. Then, as failures do occur, we model the data to see if we can understand what conditions lead up to failure so that we can anticipate the next one and avoid problems.

    This is straightforward, but it gets better if we can bring in other data – what is the weather like during the run? Who is the engineer? How heavy is the train? What is the location when brakes are applied? Etc. These are context data that can help provide additional factors to model and thus help identify situations where failure may occur.

    Therefore – I agree that industrial systems need to be in controlled environments as mentioned above, but I do think they are like other IoT environments that seek to collect and analyze data to provide better service or operation. And I do think they should seek data outside of their communities to enable better operational analysis.

    So, I think that consumer IoT and Industrial IoT share common aims but certainly need to operate within their appropriate domains. There is a lot of standards work required to enable those worlds to coexist more seamlessly – but that’s that aspiration from my side.

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    • mitch696969

      The primary model to consider for tending a group can be found in iteration loop chains. I believe that automation software will be leaner than expected.

      I disagree that all packets are equally safe in IP as this is a horrific mistake. It is true that the current IP meets all of the necessary parameters of the players involved though. Im 100% convinced they need a new way to split the IP traffic into two classes of delivery. They are constrained by one set of lines and need a unique reconciliation. The machine traffic and the people traffic have far too many disparate differences to reconcile by class alone. This somewhat emulates what happens in normalization of a database gone wrong.

  • Therese Sullivan

    Thanks for this articulate and well-reasoned response to the Kipp Bradford piece. His had a mocking tone that could grate, but the fact that it elicited this actual conversation about the different constraints of IIoT vs. IoT is a big win. His bigger point is that the cultural barriers between the two worlds need to come down in order to have more such conversations.
    Afterall, who lives in Bizzaro World?:

  • mitch696969

    The consumer internet of things becomes industrial if I can’t trust my refrigerator to not hack into my personal phone or computer when I walk by it. There is a group of devices I want talking to each other BUT im not sold on allowing everything to flow into readily hackable IP. We should consider separation of the social function devices from business, industrial devices thoroughly. I will not tolerate fighting for space online with automated devices seeking to track, identify me. It is reasonable to expect automated communication to go into another channel.