Realizing the Trillion Sensor IIoT Dream: Actionable Insights
The industrial revolution put us on a collision course with destiny - the world has simply not been the same since it started. Over the last couple hundred years, we have made astoundingly rapid and massive strides as a global collective. Today, we stand on the precipice of yet another revolution - yet another trajectory-altering moment for us as a global civilisation - the internet of things. A few years ago, when IoT was still very much in its infancy, there was incredible hype surrounding the possibilities that would be enabled by this promising tech in the years to come. It is perhaps fitting that this new revolution is being termed the fourth industrial revolution.
In those heady days, the trillion figure mark was thrown around quite a lot - in hindsight, those estimations do come across a tad but churlish today - but well, that’s the nature of hindsight though. In actuality, while IoT has grown into a veritable behemoth, stamping its authority indelibly across all areas of human activity, we haven’t quite been able to get anywhere close to the prophesied trillion mark.
There are a number of reasons for this - we won’t quite get into all of them here. In this post, we thought we could take a look at some of the actionable insights we’ve been able to glean from these years of seeing IIoT technology in action. The effort is to try and list out some ways for the trillion sensor IIoT dream to be realised.
But before we get into that, we need to understand what the IIoT really is - it is a term that’s so readily bandied about but one that so few outside tech circles really understand.
What is IIoT?
The industrial internet of things essentially refers to the use of IoT sensors and actuators to augment industrial processes in a bid to streamline them and make them more efficient.
The core idea is to use real-time data collection and analytics in order to plug systemic inefficiencies right at the very root. Connected technologies allow us to peer deep into the micro-processes that comprise the inner workings of giant manufacturing operations in a bid to identify shortcomings and problems which could be addressed on the fly, saving us extraordinary amounts of time and capital in the process.
Moreover, IIoT enables an incredible level of quality control and also helps companies be less wasteful in terms of how much resources they consume. Efficiency, sustainability, accountability and quality are all watchwords of IIoT-enabled manufacturing.
So then, back to the question at hand - how do we make the trillion sensor IIoT dream come true? Let’s look at some of the ideas that the IIoT can implement in order to truly become the disruptive behemoth that it was meant to be.
The biggest handicap that IoT technology faced in its early years was that battery technology was not quite able to keep up with the advancements that were being made in terms of processing power and sensor technology. Our sensors were getting so powerful so quickly that we were simply not able to come up with a solution to power them that was remotely par for the course.
In the early years, much effort was put into developing low-power semiconductors and long lasting batteries. However, this was a stop gap solution, at best - no matter how long the batteries lasted and how little power was required by the nodes, IoT could never quite scale up to a level where it would realise its immense potential - after all, battery replacements were expensive and tedious. It was simply a non-starter.
In recent years though, there has been hope in the form of self-powered sensors, which use energy harvesting technology. These batteryless sensors are able to power themselves for years using ambient energy - i.e energy that is simply floating around us right now and going unused.
Any IIoT application is going to be sensor-heavy. A smart manufacturing plant would typically employ thousands if not tens of thousands of sensors that would be located in all manner of inaccessible places, wedged deep inside crevices and crannies of large, towering machine structures. If these sensors were to be powered by mains or by batteries, that would simply not be a solution in the first place, let alone an elegant one.
Moreover, in industrial IoT applications, there are often situations where sensors need to be placed in hermetically sealed locations. That is again a non-starter with any battery-based solution.
While energy harvesting technology certainly remains the gold standard against which IoT power solutions are measured, a number of middle-ground alternatives are cropping up in the market.
One solution that has become increasingly popular in industrial settings is using energy harvesting to augment battery-powered sensors. This kind of a solution allows for batteries to be charged very slowly, increasing its life span. Over a span of years, across an entire industrial operation, this can add up to make for hefty savings.
This kind of solution may not be super relevant in remote monitoring use cases but in more traditional industrial applications, a number of successful iterations have come to the fore in recent years.
Fast charging can still be done when required, as in the case of an emergency or unpredictable natural event, but the rest of the time, the battery is trickle-charged, which is more ideal to ensure longevity and battery health.
Rechargeable batteries come with a finite number of charge cycles that they’re good for - for instance, solid-state batteries usually ship with a thousand-cycle lifespan. However, the same battery can provide tens of thousands of cycles if the charge cycles are partial - i.e the battery is not discharged completely - it is drained to say 10% depth of discharge (DoD).
Doing this dramatically reduces wear and tear of the battery and in the long run, maximises savings. More cycles mean more years of usage. Thus, designing IIoT components around this pattern of usage can spell huge improvements in performance and cost efficiency.
Ultra Low Power Parts
Modern sensors are incredibly tiny compared to their yesteryear counterparts. They only need a fraction of the power required by the forebears in order to perform the same task. In many cases, they only cost a fraction of what older sensors used to cost.
Because they are so small, they don’t consume a whole lot of power. Some manufacturers go the extra mile by sourcing ultra-low power components for their miniaturised sensing devices, increasing their mileage and reducing their lifetime running costs in the process.
Power and energy are often conflated in the context of IoT devices. While a battery can be great at storing energy efficiently over many years, it may not necessarily be the best solution when it comes to transmitting said energy as a pulse.
In some cases, they can perform both roles quite well, as in the case of solid state batteries. However, most batteries are limited by their rate capability. It is in these cases that a capacitor can go a long way. When a battery is combined with a capacitor or super-cap, there is the double advantage of peak power and lossless transmission.
Often IoT solutions are designed in one-size-fits-all fashion. What makes more sense is an approach where sensing devices are purpose-built to match the requirements of the particular use-case.
For instance, many IoT products are usually designed to a predefined specification across parameters such as rate of sensing, power consumption, size, rate of data transfer etc - this places additional constraints on the kind of energy solutions that can then be chosen to power the product.
It makes a lot more sense to have as many of the variables as possible custom-tailored to fit the particular application.
Holistic Cost Of Ownership Quantification
Energy harvesting is such a new technology that a lot of product designers still dismiss it offhand without knowing just how efficient and reliable modern energy harvesting technologies have become. Moreover, there is an almost superstitious belief that adding a new component will increase the bill of materials (BOM) - Granted that may be the case sometimes, but more often than not, BOM estimates don’t take into account the total cost of ownership over the lifetime of the product.
For instance, the upfront cost of integrating an energy harvester and/or a capacitor into an IoT product might be more expensive - but, in the long run, it makes for guaranteed savings.
Batteries tend to run out and when they do, it means operations have to remain shut for hours or even days. Additionally, there is the cost of sending in personnel in order to scope out the faulty device and replacing the battery. What’s worse is that even if we magically prevent unexpected battery failures from occurring somehow, there is still the cost of having to replace batteries after a certain time-period.
Moreover, modern energy harvesting solutions have come such a long way that in many cases, even the initial bill of materials (BOM) cost is significantly lower than their battery-powered counterparts.
Quantifying the cost of ownership in a holistic and farsighted fashion makes for much better long term savings.
Here’s To Industry
IIoT devices are expected to feature very prominently in the years to come - the digital transformation that is currently underway is sure to gather momentum as we go forward. Companies around the world are currently in the process of digitising their processes, workflows and production lines.
Supply chains around the world are increasingly turning smart. Moreover, newer technological standards such as big data, machine learning and 5G are only going to catalyse this process further. 5G, in specific, is going to be a huge game changer for the IIoT - as the 5G standard increasingly becomes the norm around the world, more and more organisations are going to embrace IIoT and all the benefits it can bring to them.
The hope is that we can use these developments to foster a new brand of development that values sustainability and holistic wellbeing as much as acceleration and growth. While the future looks exciting and bright in many ways, we do have a whole bunch of issues that need to be addressed. Many of these global issues are a direct consequence of the first industrial revolution that started in the 18th century. Hopefully, the fourth industrial revolution is going to signal a move away from our exploitative ways towards a more sensible way of inhabiting our planet.