Industry 4.0? Easy as 1,2,3… long as you get the interoperability right

2 mins read

The Industry 4.0 revolution holds great promise. Drones delivering parcels, self-driving cars, smart robotics and 3D printing are the widely expected future norm, while wilder inventions like 3D printed homes, downloadable food and underwater cities are predicted by academics and futurologists in the SmartThings Living Future report.

This future utopia of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is driving the manufacturing industry to understand, plan for and take initial steps towards digital transformation – the latest buzzword in the business lexicon. The digital revolution is penetrating the walls of manufacturing organisations as they look to adopt technologies that will allow them to transform their operating models and digitally connect processes, events, actions, internal associates and external partners to maximise the Industry 4.0 opportunity.

But there is one huge fly in the ointment and it stands to seriously slow organisations down in taking advantage of the IIoT promise: interoperability.

The Industrial IoT Opportunity

Industry 4.0 involves the computerisation of machinery and automation using robotics, as well as the intelligent measurement and analysis of data to improve efficiency, profitability and safety. Third party sources predict that global investment in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will reach $500 billion by 2020. Companies that introduce automation and more flexible production techniques to manufacturing can boost productivity by as much as 30%. Plus predictive maintenance of assets can save companies up to 12% over scheduled repairs, reduce overall maintenance costs by up to 30% and eliminate breakdowns by 70%.

These automation technologies will be driven by advanced sensors, big data technologies and intelligent machine applications that will harvest contextual data, manage, analyse and serve it back to the user or device as relevant information, all in real time. Look at the proliferation of mobile devices using intelligent software, traditional computers, big data servers, and IoT devices – you then have a picture of the magnitude of contextual data available. While the IIoT is still in its infancy, its ability to evolve will depend on how well this explosion in data is integrated and served across an ecosystem of devices.

Taking One Step Back to Take a Giant Leap Forward

The last century and a half of industrial innovation has been riddled with things that never worked that well. Businesses still struggle to integrate their ERP with other core business applications. Many universal product codes that track trade items in stores are still not fully integrated with the customer journey data and profile, meaning that it’s harder to offer personalised offers based on preferences. Additionally, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) – the abilities for companies to exchange documents electronically – has still not been resolved as message formats are still not standardised.

The biggest flaw though, has been the inability to agree on common standards and lay the groundwork that will successfully solve the challenges of data and device interoperability. The technology giants that were the early innovators of the Web have used their power to create closed ecosystems that have afforded them, and them alone control. This has led to other OEMs and partners following suit, creating their own standards for the development of applications based on proprietary operating systems or devices. It has given rise to a very real interoperability challenge: a lack of common standards with popular devices and systems that do not share data with each other if they are not all connected within the same ecosystem.

But Industry 4.0 is dependent on connectivity perhaps more than anything else and if devices and systems work on complex and varied standards that don’t always interoperate, there may as well be no standards whatsoever.

It’s the Interoperability, Stupid

Unlocking the potential of IIoT will rely heavily on addressing the challenge of interoperability between devices and machines that use different protocols and have different architectures. Technology giants need to find a way of cooperating that doesn’t threaten IP while also building a mutually beneficial open standard that encourages collaboration from a developer perspective.

Some headway has been made by the non-profit Industrial Internet Consortium but it is not enough. These giants have the ability to decide how IIoT develops. It’s time to use that power to ensure that the IIOT will still foster innovation and collaboration, enabling the manufacturing industry to deliver on the IIoT promise through powerful and effective digital transformation.