The Industrial Internet of Things in 2021 - A Manufacturing Perspective

IoT for Manufacturing Symposium, Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute, November 10, 2021

Alain Louchez, Co-founder and Director Emeritus, CDAIT; and Research Fellow, CACP

The underlying structural forces identified in my previous introductory talks at the Symposium, such as, but certainly not limited to demographic shifts, the expansion of existing and new communications networks/protocols (5G, LPWAN, WiFi [in all its versions], etc.), the need for reliable and independent power source (energy harvesting and long lifespan batteries) and the ongoing technological tradeoff negotiation between the edge and the cloud continued to impact the Internet of Things in general, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), in particular, in 2021. For a wide range of reasons, scaling up (from pilot to full-blown across-the-board deployment) perdures as a Sisyphean task.

However, throughout the year, several developments were noticeably visible, some with potential long-term implications. They are presented below without any claim to accuracy or completeness. This brief review, very subjective in nature, offers food for thought and invites further investigation. The accompanying slide deck provides supporting information and additional details.

While by many accounts the Internet of Things seems well entrenched, some market observers claimed that it had not yet taken off, or, at the very least, was not meeting the (hyped) earlier expectations. In 2021, as before, the Internet of Things is not universally well defined, and depending on the definition of what it is, different (and, sometimes, opposite) conclusions can be reached. In this regard, help arrived at the end of 2020 when the Internet of Things Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2020 provided the "sense of Congress" regarding what IoT devices are, i.e., sensors or actuators interacting directly with the physical world, connected to a network, not necessarily the Internet, and are not smartphones and laptops or similar equipment. Note that this definition echoes the one found in the vocabulary document of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), which, very tellingly, morphed in August into the "Industry IoT Consortium". More than ever, it is crucial to understand the vital and bidirectional role of manufacturing in IoT, on the one hand, as a user of IoT technologies (e.g., process optimization), but also, and fundamentally, on the other, through the fabrication of smart products, as the ultimate IoT enabler.

The latter point was brought into sharp focus in 2021 as a result of supply chain strains and the global chip shortage. Market research firm Forrester reported earlier in the year that 80% of global manufacturers were facing challenges in producing digital products and services. Some analysts were advocating that IIoT could help in better managing supply and demand signals and, as a result, contribute to alleviate supply chain tensions. The year saw an increasing use of no-code/low-code in programming. Heralded as the "most disruptive trend in 2021," they were found (e.g., at Mendix) to be utilized by industrial users for IoT in the factory and device applications.

In May, IBM announced the world's first 2nm chip technology allowing to fit 50 billion transistors on a chip the size of a fingernail. It will certainly take some time for these chips to get to market, but these announcements (IBM's and TSMC's on the development of 1nm chips) are the harbinger of the radical economic and societal transformation the IoT has in store.

In July, the IIC released a white paper on the trustworthiness of Cyber-Physical Systems, at the core of which are safety, security, privacy, reliability and resilience. Adopted also by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), these characteristics form, in the midst of Covid-19, a timely and helpful guide in ensuring IoT-centered organizational trust. Certainly, other dimensions may perhaps be considered to solidify trustworthiness. One, among others, could be transparency [opacity being often mentioned as a hurdle in related discussions, see the FTC study on privacy practices released on October 21, 2021] - for other suggestions, please go to p. 88 of the CDAIT thought leadership 2018 paper on IoT and Citizen Engagement. Spurred by the pandemic's effects on businesses, resilience has emerged in 2021 as a paramount critical success factor. IIoT technologies are well suited to deliver resilience and hasten "organizational plasticity".

Artificial Intelligence, and more specifically, Machine Learning (ML) continue to invade manufacturing beyond condition monitoring. As reported by McKinsey, "using IIoT sensors to monitor stock and vibration of production equipment is a leading use case that combines real-time monitoring and ML algorithms to extend the useful life of machinery while ensuring maintenance schedules are accurate." Predictive maintenance is viewed as a fertile ground for ML in manufacturing.

The search for IoT talent remains a major IIoT concern and, at times, a quixotic challenge. Given the nature of the IoT value chain, IoT engineers must be jacks of all trades. They are expected to have expertise in a host of domains including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and user experience design.

Going forward, production monitoring and controlling, process optimization, predictive maintenance, workforce safety, energy maintenance and sustainability, or, more broadly, optimized operational efficiency and productivity gains are at the top of the application domains in IIoT. The real litmus test for IIoT technologies might be whether they can lead to the creation of new business opportunities and profit centers.

Finally, 2021 saw increased interest on "Industry 5.0", a complementary concept to "Industry 4.0" leaning on sustainability, human-centeredness and resilience. The European Union issued a report on the topic in January, while in North America organizations such as the International Society of Automation (ISA) and the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) are also increasingly exploring this industry vision which, some claim, "will transform manufacturing process as we know it." It is difficult not to see some parallel between Industry 5.0's human factor enhancement and the "High Tech High Touch" perspective advanced in "Megatrends" almost forty years ago by John Naisbitt who passed away in April.

As, little by little, the world is moving closer to a "pulsating world", Nikola Tesla's almost a century-old remarkable prediction sums up what IoT could eventually bring about: "when wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole."


IoT Council (EU):