Getting connected to the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about connections. The number of objects and devices being IoT-enabled by connected sensors, processors and transmitters has greatly increased.
They not only collect data but communicate and interact with each other, sharing information and helping to create the larger picture that Big Data provides. Smart devices, interconnected devices that can operate to some extent autonomously, are not only involved in data collection but can also be used to control conditions in the physical world.
Businesses, however, need to get beyond the technology and the potential to gather vast amounts of data. They have to consider how the IoT can be part of their commercial model. The IoT has many strategic and operational uses that go right across business sectors. The IoT is relevant to areas in Section E of the SBL syllabus, including the need to explore opportunities for adopting new technologies and the potential application of information technology to support e- business.
Smart devices can be found just about anywhere. For the home there are devices that can turn on the coffee machine when you wake up, lock the doors when you leave the house and put on your favourite music when you get home. Travelling to work, smart devices can collect data about traffic volumes, so that you can receive alerts warning you of traffic jams and advising you to take a different route. In the office, smart desks have been developed that can tell you when you’ve sat for too long in the same position and it’s a good time to stand up.
- Helping with particular tasks – the IoT can help enable better-targeted working processes. The oil and gas industry has been able to build models based on seismic images to improve the precision of exploration for new reserves. Data about the conditions that products are kept in can be used to help predict with precision the life of individual products within a larger batch. This is particularly important in the food industry, where shelf life can vary according to harvesting, holding, processing and distribution arrangements.
- Generating efficiencies – the information smart devices make available within manufacturing operations can help prevent bottlenecks. Efficiencies also include reduction in the use of resources, by, for example, using smart devices for better energy management in buildings. In agriculture, sensors on farms enable farmers to monitor soil conditions and irrigation levels, optimising their water and fertilizer use.
- Monitoring for potential problems – devices are able to give warnings to remote locations of security problems, such as open windows. The data devices provide can also enhance the effectiveness of procedures designed to prevent problems occurring. Predictive maintenance involves use of data relating to the condition of equipment to estimate when maintenance should be performed. The timing of maintenance will be partly determined by when it is cost-effective, but also trying to ensure that it happens before there is likely to be a loss in performance.
- Underpinning strategic development – in the automotive industry 3D printers can be used to shape pressing tools by printing the shape directly onto the steel granulate. This helps enable car designs to be tailored to customer requirements.
The medical sector has found many uses for smart devices. Devices in the home can provide alerts that medical emergencies, such as falls, have occurred. They can also enable continuous remote monitoring of blood pressure and heart rate, and also responses to treatment.
In the transport sector the proliferation of smart devices such as traffic cameras, sensors and vehicles’ tracking modules can be used for longer-term objectives, as well as warning motorists of traffic problems ahead. They can identify the most-frequently taken routes and provide data that can be used as a basis for decisions about simplifying those routes.
As always, security is an important concern. A significant criticism of the IoT is that development of applications has not been accompanied by sufficient development of security. In some instances the consequences of hacking could be life-threatening.
Privacy and breaching data protection regulations are also serious concerns. The more information that devices provide, the more is known about what individuals are doing, leading perhaps to a greater ability to predict behaviour. Individuals may fear being watched and be afraid of whether the inferences drawn from data collected about them can be used to ‘control’ their behaviour. Compliance with data protection regulations is complicated by regulations continuing to develop and differences in regulations between countries.
Other technical issues include platform fragmentation, the problem of providing applications that can work with IoT devices that use a variety of hardware and software. One device becoming obsolescent can disrupt the whole network of which that device forms a part. Data storage and processing costs may be large. Problems with connection, gathering and understanding data may hinder IoT application, emphasising the need for expert staff to be involved.
In addition, many IoT applications do not get beyond the pilot or development stage. Developments can concentrate too much on the technology, and not establish early on whether there is a convincing business case. The time horizons for successful implementation may be felt to be too long-term. Barriers to implementation may also include the limitations of the hardware being used by businesses or the insufficiency of their information systems’ infrastructure. Old legacy systems may be a particular issue, as businesses may not want to replace all their computer equipment for new devices that can accommodate the IoT.
IoT applications continue to develop across commercial, infrastructure, manufacturing and industrial sectors. They are also increasing in scope, with smart design being built into city planning. For businesses however, it remains difficult to predict the pace at which IoT applications will develop, and whether they will creep into businesses’ environment or suddenly and quickly transform it.
Written by a member of the Strategic Business Leader examining team