The Promise and Peril of the Industrial Internet of Things

"The industrial internet of things will increase the vulnerability and potential for havoc."
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

This article appears in print in the November 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Oh, howdy! Who am I and what am I doing rummaging around your data collection systems, your machine controls and your computer files? Why, I’m the internet of things (IoT). You invited me in, remember?

Say, some of the belts on that machine are overdue for replacement. Not to worry. I’ve already ordered new parts and scheduled the service tech to install them. Line No. 2 looks to be a little out of production spec. Not to worry. I’ve tweaked the settings. And that big customer of yours has been fretting about the status of a major order. Not to worry. I’ve sent them reports on where in the process the order is, complete with production data.

If you’re feeling a bit queasy about sharing so much information about your business, not to mention ceding control of your operations to outsiders, so sorry and too late. This is the way of the world — or will be once IoT is fully deployed. Transparency is the byword and buzzword; interconnectedness is the new order of things.

No doubt you’ve read the stories of what’s happening on the personal front — the harvesting and selling of users’ information and data by the Facebooks and Googles of the world. No doubt you’ve read the stories about refrigerators so laden with sensors and AI software that they’ll know when you’re low on milk, and when and where to buy more. Now apply the same promises and warnings to the business world and watch the discomfort rise exponentially.

Cybersecurity is already a major hazard — and growing expense — for businesses trying to thwart hackers as well as protect data and operations. The industrial internet of things (IIoT) will increase the vulnerability and potential for havoc. A web-connected refrigerator that someone tampers with poses a risk of spoiled milk, or no milk at all. A web-connected dairy plant, power plant, hospital or manufacturing facility that someone tampers with and, well, you’ll be lucky if all you get is a lot of spoiled milk.

Businesses are under pressure to connect to the industrial internet of things. “Capturing information from machines is not going to be a nice-to-have; it’s going to be a must-have,” an executive of a business software company said at a manufacturing conference in Bellevue earlier this year. “Your customers are going to want visibility into what you’re doing and your facilities.”

Consumers, he added, can already use online systems that tell them whether a product they want is in stock, and where, and to trace a shipment’s progress every step of the way to home delivery. “Our customers are going to want the same thing,” he said.

That’s a problem even if the internet of things is being used to observe rather than meddle. A lot of value, in the form of intellectual property, proprietary processes and competitive advantage, is tied up in that data. A lot of businesses will not be willing to share that, even with those who might have a legitimate reason for seeing it.

One attendee at the conference, with considerable experience in aerospace, wondered just how receptive Boeing would be to the notion of its assembly plant packed with sensors reporting data to customers, suppliers and potentially the rest of the world. Boeing may well want to know where its parts are and what condition they’re in, and to get those answers by peering into suppliers’ operations. Let its customers do the same? Not so fast.

One attendee at the conference, with considerable experience in aerospace, wondered just how receptive Boeing would be to the notion of its assembly plant packed with sensors reporting data to customers, suppliers and potentially the rest of the world. Boeing may well want to know where its parts are and what condition they’re in, and to get those answers by peering into suppliers’ operations. Let its customers do the same? Not so fast. 

The Seattle area will be in the thick of these discussions because of the presence of users like the aerospace ecosystem, cloud-service providers like Amazon and Microsoft and a growing cluster of emerging companies providing IIoT services. IIoT can be a powerful tool for delivering real-time data to executives and managers. The problems come when everyone else wants a peek — and can get one. That would be a reason to worry.

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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