Scott Parish, IoT Channel Sales Manager – NORAM, Gemalto
A 2017 study on the state of the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) showed that while the IIoT might be one of the oldest subsets in the world of connected things, deployments by manufacturing or utilities businesses are relatively immature.
Investment is still primarily focused on simple connectivity and data monitoring, but it’s having the desired effect: early adopters who responded to the survey were overwhelmingly pleased with returns on their investments. Future levels of investment in industrial connectivity should remain strong for the foreseeable future as businesses expand on their existing IIoT platforms before moving towards the later stages of maturity.
As they embark on these expansions and new, large-scale IIoT rollouts, businesses should understand the different paths to industrial connectivity and the ROI that can be realized. Furthermore, companies should understand how their chosen approach can mitigate the risks of network downtime from intermittent or catastrophic failure, or from cyberattacks.
Businesses typically have three choices for their IIoT networks: replace existing machines with new, connected ones; build fully-customized IIoT hardware and software, or purchase hardware and customize software platforms around specific analytics goals.
Replacing existing equipment to “test” the IIoT and scale up later might be an attractive option for smaller businesses who are already preparing for new equipment purchases, but it is doubtful they’ll see a path to ROI at scale when the costs of replacing equipment throughout plants can be high.
High replacement costs may encourage them to consider option 2, in which they will need to design the hardware solution and integrate the software needed to collect and analyze data. This path to connectivity is complex to say the least. Cellular (PCB) layout and (RF) engineering are highly complex processes and a multitude of resources are required to conceptualize and prototype a device; secure carrier certifications and industry and government approvals; begin production and finally move to integration.
These complex and time-consuming processes can be expensive, though likely not as pricey as upgrading aging facilities and replacing equipment for the sake of connectivity. For large-scale deployments across thousands or hundreds of thousands of devices, the ROI can justify extra investments in a fully-customized IIoT solution.
Companies caught somewhere in the middle of the previous two options may find that affordable, pre-built and carrier pre-certified IoT terminals strike the right balance between costs and time-to-ROI. There are a variety of terminals available today that let industrial businesses skip the PCB and RF engineering and focus on collecting the right data and building a software platform to extract business insights from that data.
Coding for ROI
In all likelihood, businesses will need to turn to outside experts in IoT and cellular integration to help them deploy sensors and collect and visualize the data gathered about equipment, materials and manufacturing processes. The potential of the IIoT is limited mostly by the imagination of the business and those designing or integrating it, so it’s important that analytics goals are clearly outlined before integration begins.
For example, manufacturing companies may want to monitor wear and tear on robotic equipment. This will help them keep up with preventative maintenance and avoid more costly repairs down the road. Or they could try to reduce downtime by tracking tools around factories to help workers locate them quickly.
IIoT devices can also combat downtime from supply shortages or procurement errors by monitoring raw materials coming into factories, measuring current and projected inventory levels and triggering automated purchases when appropriate. Along with potential savings from more accurate orders, close monitoring of resources can also help prevent waste, further benefiting companies’ bottom lines.
Safeguarding the Network
Connectivity is a powerful tool in cutting costs and increasing productivity, but it can also open a business up to new risks. IIoT devices must withstand unique stresses in industrial environments and those that can’t take the heat – literally – may go offline and interrupt analytics efforts. Businesses should consult with vendors to ensure devices have sufficient heat, vibration or other tolerances to stand up to the challenge of staying connected in harsh and unforgiving environments.
Another concern for companies today is the risk of cyberattack. Industrial businesses generate and store a lot of proprietary or confidential data that can be valuable to cybercriminals if they can access companies’ networks and steal it, making unprotected factories, networks, databases and utility networks prime targets for hacking.
Criminals also know that every second of downtime is money lost for industrial businesses. As a result, they increasingly use “ransomware” attacks to hold industrial companies’ critical systems or data hostage and demand payment to unlock them. Ransomware is one of the fastest-growing cyberattack types targeting industrial companies today: the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received more than 2,600 reports of ransomware in 2016 and those victims lost more than $2.4 million.
So, how can companies protect their IoT devices and networks?
One of the simplest and most effective defenses against cyberattacks is to keep software up-to-date. Unpatched software and inferior passwords were to blame for some of the largest data breaches in the past year.
Industrial businesses should seek out IoT devices that support over-the-air software updates. In the event that the software running on an IoT device contains a security flaw, companies can send an update with a security patch without removing the device or shutting it down at a critical time.
Many newer machines and devices, including IoT terminals, can also have their firmware updated remotely via firmware over-the-air or FOTA. Firmware is the code controlling the basic operation of a device and, despite its simplicity, can sometimes present open doors for hackers. OEM’s proactively track firmware vulnerabilities and can use FOTA to push firmware or maintenance releases to devices deployed on factory floors or in the field. IoT terminals that companies purchase should have this capability, and FOTA should absolutely be a design criterion for bespoke solutions.
For many manufacturing companies or utilities businesses, connectivity is making a big impact on costs and business efficiency. Concentrating investment in the coming year or two on cost-effective connectivity, data analytics and secure device management can help industrial businesses quickly realize returns on IIoT investments.
About Scott Parish
Scott Parish has worked in the semiconductor and IoT industry for 30 years and today manages Gemalto’s North American IoT channel. When he’s not working, he enjoys mountain biking, boating and deep-sea fishing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on Gemalto’s terminal products or to just say hello.