Industrial organizations have added billions of connected devices over the past decade. Deploying those connections is only a first step in using IoT to drive business objectives.
Organizations need the infrastructure and procedures in place to collect, aggregate, analyze and act on the data generated by endpoints. Administrators must also manage and optimize the device and network connections. This is where the industrial IoT (IIoT) platform comes into play.
IIoT platforms break down the silos of IoT pipelines and create a centralized point for industrial users to manage their IoT deployment. Platforms give IT and operational technology (OT) leaders better visibility into deployments and data to optimize the value of their IoT investments.
"As you connect more and more sensors for different use cases, you need this central point of aggregation to bring all this data together and to manage all of it," said Emil Berthelsen, an analyst at Gartner.
What exactly is an IIoT platform?
Industrial organizations, such as manufacturers, have deployed connected devices for years. For example, endpoint sensors monitor equipment and production lines to support business objectives. But industrial organizations often build connected infrastructure in silos for each use case.
Many organizations have set up multiple IoT silos with different technologies and protocols. The lack of compatibility across silos has complicated the process of aggregating and analyzing data. Integration efforts also create challenges in management and maintenance and limit innovation in the IoT deployment.
Vendors offer hundreds of products that help with some of these challenges. IIoT platforms pull together the capabilities needed to create a centralized point of control, Berthelsen said.
Gartner qualifies a product as an IIoT platform when it has six specific features:
- edge device management capabilities;
- analytics capabilities;
- data management capabilities;
- application enablement and management capabilities;
- integration tools; and
- built-in security.
Platforms also often have a library of digital twins and industry-specific data standards, models and protocols.
IIoT platforms support IT/OT convergence, an essential element to scale IIoT and drive innovation in deployments, said Massimo Russo, a senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group.
"Once you liberate the data and get it into one of these platforms, you can use agile methods and other approaches and analytical tools to develop solutions," Russo said.
Benefits of IIoT platforms
IIoT platforms deliver value in two major ways.
First, industrial organizations use platforms to better manage and maximize the value of their operations. Platforms can analyze data in real time to generate insights organizations can use to optimize operations. For example, a manufacturing plant uses a platform to digitalize its factory floor, automate processes, monitor worker safety and maximize production.
The IIoT platform centralizes IIoT deployment management and data aggregation to pursue goals. Plant managers no longer must divvy up efforts to chase, manage and analyze the data needed for each specific use, Russo said.
Second, platforms support products or services that industrial users can use or sell to their own customers. Organizations can build applications on platforms to improve product and user experience. For example, an equipment manufacturer can use a platform to establish a predictive maintenance service that it sells to customers.
"If you're selling equipment and you want to provide connected services, you will need an IIoT platform that is secure and can ingest data at volumes and then use that to develop and enhance solutions that are leveraging that data," Russo said.
Tackle IIoT platform challenges
Organizations can find an IIoT platform difficult to implement and use effectively.
IT and OT teams must come together to create a strategy to clean, manage and analyze data from endpoint devices, Berthelsen said. Industrial operation data is unstructured and messy.
The teams must continue to build the organization's IoT system. Industrial organizations often add edge devices to normalize, clean and process endpoint data before moving it into an IIoT platform. IT and OT teams must also address security concerns, which can be a sticking point in IIoT deployments and platforms.
IIoT deployments need experts with security and data analysis skills to work with an IIoT platform's capabilities. IIoT teams also require cloud or on-premises data center expertise to handle scaling up data and analysis, Berthelsen said.
Vendor selection considerations
Industrial use of IIoT platforms is low but growing. Only 10% of industrial enterprises used IIoT platforms to improve factory operations in 2020, but Gartner analysts predict the number will climb to 50% by 2025.
The industrial technology market includes well-established product and service suppliers, large technology firms and niche companies. Vendors include familiar names, such as Hitachi, Software AG, GE Digital, AWS, Microsoft and Oracle, as well as Braincube, Exosite and RootCloud.
Many vendors offer IIoT platforms that are industry specific, because each industrial vertical uses niche technologies. Prepackaged services that target verticals can offer quick implementations compared to organizations that build their own from scratch.