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For the second year in a row, the Internet of Things (IoT) rests at the top of Gartner's annual list of most-hyped emerging technologies. But despite the negative connotation, ERP managers in manufacturing operations shouldn't assume IoT is a technology fad they can safely ignore. The Gartner researchers also said IoT has the potential for making a significant impact on organizations in the years ahead.
Now, IT managers have a broader range of commercial tools to help roll out IoT technology faster and more effectively, including a spate of new hardware, software and reference designs from Advantech Co. Ltd., Cisco, Dell, Freescale Semiconductor Inc., Intel and Samsung.
Experts said IoT "gateways" are an important part of this group, because they provide a communications bridge that enables older, formerly sensor-less shop equipment to feed performance data to management systems.
IoT gateways important part of new technology
Other analysts agree with Gartner that IoT technology is poised to deliver significant competitive advantages, but some long-time observers contend IoT isn't as new as many people think. "Manufacturing plants have been doing IoT for years," said Bill McBeath, chief research officer at ChainLink Research Inc., in Newton, Mass. "Some factories already embedded sensors and intelligence into objects, and then connected them to the Internet to more closely monitor their operations. For these companies, IoT is a gentle revolution."
Bill McBeathchief research officer at ChainLink Research
IoT gateways are emerging as a relatively quick way to get there. "Machines used in manufacturing may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so companies can't justify ripping and replacing them before they're fully depreciated," said Daniel Mandell, market research analyst for the IoT and Embedded Technology Group at VDC Research Group Inc., based in Natick, Mass. "IoT gateways make it easy to connect legacy equipment with sensors and applications for predictive maintenance, condition monitoring and other uses."
These experts segment IoT gateways into two main categories. The most basic units send raw streams of data among connected components via wireless or physical links. These gateways also may translate the information into a format understandable to back-end servers and analytics applications.
A second option is pricier, "intelligent" gateways, named for their internal storage and embedded software for analyzing the high-volume data feeds and highlighting information deemed most relevant by the organization. Administrators also may program the software to send an alert when, for example, the internal temperature of a machine being monitored exceeds a preset threshold. "The big payoff for having data filtering at the edge of the network is decreased bandwidth costs from reduced network traffic," Mandell said.
Gateways get a test run in manufacturing
KMC Controls Inc., a long-time vendor of hardware and software for building automation, is testing its IoT mobile app with customers. Named Commander, the product combines mobile and cloud capabilities, along with embedded processors and security technology from Intel, and a Dell intelligent gateway being sold to OEMs. One of the early tests now runs at a manufacturer that wants to closely measure electricity, gas and water use to reduce energy costs, said Richard Newberry, an advisor to KMC Controls, based in New Paris, Ind. The effort will help validate the energy-management use-case for other manufacturers and provide feedback for future iterations of the mobile app, he said.
"There are 5 million buildings that are 50,000 square feet or less in the U.S. that don't have a building-management solution in place," he added. Newberry cited a U.S. Energy Department report saying these types of buildings may use 15% to 30% more energy than necessary. "We believe this is the low-hanging fruit for IoT," Newberry said.
KMC Controls plans to use value-added resellers to install the IoT technology after it officially launches in 2016. "When our system integrators install the gateway in a building, real-time data will be put in the hands of the decision makers," he said. "This will allow them to monitor and control usage from a smartphone, tablet or PC."
Taking a long-term approach
Using systems integrators to implement IoT gateways will be a common practice among manufacturers, McBeath said. "It's hard to find one vendor that's got all the components that go into an IoT solution," he explained. "A systems integrator can bring all the pieces together."
Because gateways are a critical component, manufacturers should make gateway partners one of the criteria they consider when evaluating potential integrators. Another consideration for the fast-moving IoT market is the technology roadmaps of prospective vendors and service providers. Manufacturers should choose technology based on how easily it can be enhanced rather than replaced as new capabilities become available. "You don't have to make another large investment in IoT in five to 10 years," Mandell said.
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