Evolution of the Internet of Things

In this two-part series we will explore the evolution of the Internet of Things and what that means for businesses. The first part will look at how the Internet of Things is evolving whilst the second part will focus on services.

Connected devices

Connected or “smart” devices are nothing new. The Nest Learning Thermostat, one of the first popular mass-market smart devices, was first released back in 2011. Since then, millions of units have been sold worldwide, and the breadth of IoT-connected devices available on the market has exploded, but maybe not as quickly as we would have expected.

The term “Internet of Things” was coined way back in 1999 by British entrepreneur Kevin Ashton. It describes the embedding of internet-connected computer devices that can send and receive data with everyday objects (“smart devices”). Long before we had the vocabulary for it, the first Internet-connected product, a toaster that could be powered on and off via the Internet, was showcased almost THIRTY years ago at a conference in 1989.

Today, we have the technology to make almost anything “smart” by essentially gluing on a tiny, flexible sensor. PragmatIC Printing, based in Cambridge, produces thin, relatively low-cost, sticky microchips that can be put on packaging for consumer goods, devices, and even clothing. The microchips can digitally connect entire supply chains, but as they can be embedded onto nearly any surface to make them “smart,” the use cases are limitless.

So, what’s taking so long for these devices to change the world? Industry is ripe for transformation based on IoT and related technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. In fact, these technologies are predicted to spark the fourth industrial revolution, or “Industry 4.0”.

According to Paul Carreiro, Infor executive VP and MD, EMEA, Industry 4.0 has three key components: first, IoT and the ability to collect and store vast quantities of data; second, a secure enough communications infrastructure to support this system; third, the ability to process and analyze vast amounts of data to produce insights that can be acted on quickly. For most of the past couple decades, it seems that the IoT sensors and data collection were outpacing these other two pillars, until now.

IoT in homes and cities

IoT has already impacted or generated new services in many sectors – from automobile (driverless cars!) to “smart farming” in agriculture, and utilities, as well as supply chains, manufacturing, and more. These new products and services area already delivering benefits to citizens and consumers.

So far, energy efficiency and the resulting financial savings have been key drivers for the first wave of smart consumer products that have found their way into our homes and cities.

The Nest Thermostat for instance learns homeowners’ preferences and habits to automatically adjust the temperature, leveraging the power of not just IoT but artificial intelligence or “machine learning” as well. In so doing, the device reduces energy usage, which has resulted in huge energy savings: 8 billion kWh of energy, in fact, across millions of homes worldwide, according to the Nest website.   

In the public sector, Copenhagen, for example, installed smart meters on pipes to measure water consumption, and, importantly, detect and eliminate leaking pipes to ease stress on the city’s water supply. As a result, water loss is down to 7% from about 40%.

There are implications for public health as well. To monitor, report, and improve their cities’ air quality, Chicago and Barcelona have mounted air quality sensors on lamp posts, creating citywide networks of sensors that send data to city agencies and the public. Chicago uses the data to predict and take preventative actions around air quality incidents.

Private companies are innovating to help cities evolve as well. Soofa, for example, is reinventing existing city infrastructure. Their solar-powered bench, for example, charges phones and monitors its environment, generating data that can be used to provide insights to improve public spaces while also providing free public wifi access.

These are just a few examples. The opportunities for even “smarter” homes and cities is infinite. But where will the greatest gains come from?

Industry 4.0

At the core of Industry 4.0 are smart factories. Germany has been at the forefront, outlining a plan back in 2013 to highly computerise the manufacturing industry, nearly obviating the need for human involvement. Smart factories will involve collaborative robots, workers using augmented reality components, and machines that send alerts when they need maintenance. Smart factories are able to respond rapidly to data collected in a wide array of areas—waste, inventory, output, and consumer demands, and more—which in turn enables them to improve their efficiency and take advantage of opportunities in real time.

As the birthplace of the first industrial revolution—marked by the rapid shift from farms to factories in the 18th/19th Centuries—the UK is not to be left out. Led by events such as the annual Industry 4.0 Summit, and pledges from HM Government to invest in innovative technologies (see 2017 Green Paper), the UK is particularly focused on bringing the smallest companies, SMEs, along for the ride toward Industry 4.0, with initiatives such as “4Manufacturing.”

We will continue exploring this topic further next week.