The Internet of Things (IoT) has been with us since the early noughties, and in theory it isn't more complicated than IT networks and devices connecting "things" to the internet to make them visible from virtually anywhere, and to collect their performance data to make informed decisions on their operation.
Smart mobile devices, smart metering, and even smart motorways are just a few of the applications of IoT. However, in the business and commercial sectors, the adoption of IoT technologies – often termed IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) has been a slower process.
The IIoT movement has been spearheaded by industry leaders such as Cisco, Siemens and Rockwell Automation. Germany, Denmark and Japan have been the countries with the largest numbers of early adopters.
But how does IIoT differ from IoT? IIoT refers solely to the manufacturing environment - whereas the term IoT is more widely used in the consumer environment. IIoT is a mixture of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and big data technologies. This is achieved by harvesting sensor data and integrating it into high levels of automation.
The concept behind IIoT is that smart machines and automated systems are better than humans at capturing and communicating data accurately. This data can enable companies to identify inefficiencies and problems before they become too costly. In the manufacturing sector, IIoT holds great potential for quality control, sustainability and environmentally friendly practices, supply chain traceability and greater operational efficiency.
Although IIoT has been hailed as key to Digital Transformation and manufacturing growth, many companies in the UK are still lagging behind their European counterparts in implementing it. This may be because some governments have recognised that IIoT has the capability to transform the way their home companies do business, effectively also making it a social movement.
European Leadership on IIoT
In Europe the 'Mittelstand' (Small and Medium-sized enterprises within German speaking countries) are already amongst the biggest users of industrial technology. Having understood the potential of IIoT, these companies are adopting the technologies and training their staff accordingly. Significant government support has empowered them to aim for flexible manufacturing and innovation to increase output. In the UK, businesses have not enjoyed the same level of support. Even so, industry in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, centred around the core cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, have made significant progress on their own initiative.
In Europe the 'Mittelstand' (Small and Medium-sized enterprises within German speaking countries) are already amongst the biggest users of industrial technology. Having understood the potential of IIoT, these companies are adopting the technologies and training their staff accordingly.
Nevertheless, specialists say that British companies have barely scratched the surface, and that they need to do much more if they are to capitalise on IIoT and Industry 4.0. So, if IIoT makes perfect economic sense, What’s stopping UK's PLCs from getting stuck in?
Challenges for UK Manufacturers
The biggest challenge is the lack of investment in training and education which means preserving skills and an ageing workforce have become growing constraints on productivity.
The engineering sector has been hit the hardest by the lack of skills and this is why new technologies fall by the wayside for many businesses, as their primary focus is to find and retain good workers to keep up production levels.
Digitisation is not going to be an ‘employment problem’ – it’s an opportunity to (re-)train the next generation of skilled, competent and entrepreneurial staff. With persistent Government involvement, education and training, youngsters could be steered towards STEM disciplines. Our young people require more classes on creating software, learning electrical applications and generally gaining an appreciation of practical and analytical skills.
The second challenge is the mentality of UK industry leaders; many people in the IT industry are preoccupied with upselling instead of focusing on customisation, reliability and taking controlled risks for their customers. It is therefore hardly surprising that IT is not trusted and is seen as immature or even a threat. Industry needs to be 'wooed' by IT vendors – it does not need fast changing technology and 'the next best thing' to dictate its requirements. IT vendors need to build products that will last for years and which meet high availability standards.
Raising awareness is undoubtedly the key to change. This can be achieved by creating regional centres of excellence and targeting local business communities to inform and educate them (socialising). They are already doing this in Holland – they call it 'Smart Industry'.
Determining when and where to invest in new manufacturing technology has never been more risky or more crucial to success, but with a few incentives from the government and increased interest in STEM disciplines the UK could become an industrial powerhouse rivalling the Mittelstand.
- Julian Smith, Polestar Industrial IT