The IIoT: Limitless Potential and Steep Challenges

Carl Weinschenk

The use of the Internet of Things in industrial scenarios, the Industrial Internet of Things or IIoT, will change that world as radically, or perhaps even more so, than the consumer IoT. It just won’t be as obvious.

Definitions are loose. In addition to the IoT, enterprise and commercial use of the internet is part of the broader category of Industry 4.0 or the Industrial Internet. Whatever the name, it is clear that industrial use of the internet is growing.

An ABI Research survey of 455 companies in nine vertical markets in the United States found that a majority don’t use the IIoT, but that it is gaining momentum: During the year after the research was done, 74 percent said they will “investigate,” assess or plan to implement the IIoT.

ABI found that the IIoT is an enabler of the transition to more complex applications. During the year prior to the survey, the IIoT was used in conjunction with artificial intelligence by 35 percent of respondents and with robotics by 47 percent.


It also has a broad base and value. David King, the CEO of FogHorn Systems, points to manufacturing, oil and gas, power and water, renewable energy, mining, transportation and smart cities and buildings as likely users of the IIoT.

“What we see most often are deployments focused on product quality inspection, predictive maintenance, and real-time asset-health monitoring,” King wrote in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. “Customers are seeing immediate business value; e.g., identifying defects in the early stages of manufacturing reduces scrap and increases yield.”

Another IIoT study, this one by Zebra Technologies Inc., revealed that interest in the IIoT is growing, though it also suggests that companies are moving carefully. Between this year and 2022, the firm found, the percentage of responding companies that have “fully connected data to production, supply chain and workers” grew from 43 percent to 64 percent. The Asia Pacific region led the way with 77 percent. Latin America and North America were roughly the same, at 64 percent and 63 percent, respectively. Europe trailed at 53 percent.

The study found that barriers to adoption included complexity, lack of IT resources, security concerns and budget. These issues are all in the 40 percent range. The authors found it interesting that return on investment (ROI), which is usually the greatest gating factor in new technology or procedure adoption, was far behind at 29 percent.

It’s All About the Data

Industry and commerce produce an unfathomable amount of data. Each machine and every process tells all or part of the story of how well the operation is going, whether it is about to break or woefully under-perform, whether the efficiencies and other goals set up for processes are being met and how it can be improved.

There are many more key questions. Some of these involve the machine itself and others the systems or processes in which they operate. In the past, there was no way to monitor systems and devices and, therefore, all of the potentially valuable data simply floated away. The IIoT changes all that: A far greater record of what happens on the factory floor can be collected, measured and assessed. Changes can be made to fix machines that are broken (or soon will be) and processes that are not working can be scrapped or fixed.

The result can be greater speed, reduced or eliminated down time and streamlining of any number of processes. One example: Machines have characteristic vibration profiles. Changes generally are a sign of trouble. Now, machines can be fit with faceplates and other devices that monitor the vibrations and alert the organization if the motor moves outside of preset parameters. This is an IIoT-enabled process that can keep an assembly running when in the past it would go down.

It Is a Challenge

The IIoT has a great potential future, but nothing so fundamental comes without challenges.

Security, of course, is a vital element of any deployment. The IIoT digs so deeply into equipment and processes and therefore magnifies the dangers of malware and malevolent hacking.

“Because IIoT is still such a nascent set of technologies, we caution users to deploy solutions after thoroughly weighing the business value, and convenience versus security risk factors,” wrote King in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. “My guiding question before any deployment: ‘Can I do this locally, without connecting to an external network?’ If so, an organization can reduce its exposure and risk to a malicious hack.”

A second challenge is finding personnel. It will be difficult to find people who can operate the IIoT, according to Richard Mark Soley, Ph.D., the CEO of the Object Management Group and Executive Director of the Industrial Internet Consortium. “We haven't published anything official on testbed results yet -- we're working on it now -- but I can tell you it's very clear that the great difficulty we're seeing is finding people with the right expertise,” he wrote in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. “In some parts of the technology stack, it's not too difficult (especially connectivity), but in others it's still quite difficult.”

Several companies, including analytics firm SAS and CSA, a global testing and certification company, recently joined the IIC as efforts to manage the growth and evolution of the IIoT intensify. “We recognize that, for clients to recognize value from IIoT initiatives, it often requires a number of diverse technologies working together, which can be a barrier,” wrote Bill Roberts, the director of the Global IoT Practice for SAS. “IIC provides an environment for the IIoT ecosystem to work together to establish connections and make our client-facing work easier. IIC also provides a megaphone to the market helping SAS reach a large number of our existing and prospective customers.”

Much work remains. Salil Dani, a vice president at the Everest Group, said many organizations have legacy hardware and software that lacks the end-to-end connectivity needed for the IIoT. Organizations also have “fairly complex and distributed vendor portfolio(s), including devices, analytics, networks and security, that are quarterbacked by different vendors. This makes for a difficult integration.”

Dani wrote that efforts to confront these challenges are ongoing. Some enterprises, for instance, are investing in a common data model and control architecture that crosses technology component and vendor boundaries. Enterprises, he wrote, are working to deploy the IoT in an end-to-end fashion across the organization or business units within it.

Dani suggests that much work remains. “[I]t is important to note that there exists a significant gap between current benefits and full potential benefits that can be realized through IoT,” he wrote. “While enterprises have started to take steps toward a more holistic implementation, their implementation is behind the full potential at present.”

The Industrial Internet of Things is a huge step for commercial, industrial and other complex and dense environments. The challenges are real and substantial, but the progress toward implementation seems steady.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.


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