By Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor 

Internet of ThingsEquipment manufacturers seeking to gain a significant competitive advantage over their industry peers should look no further than burgeoning technological movement known as the Internet of Things.

Defined as the Internet-enabled interconnection of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, the Internet of Things - or IoT - provides equipment manufacturers with a wealth of opportunities to positively impact their respective businesses. Whether it's improving operational efficiency, increasing workplace safety, developing smarter and more innovative products, or even supporting compliance, the ever-evolving Internet of Things offers manufacturers the necessary tools and technology to spark transformative change within their own operations and throughout the industry.  

“When you talk about competitive advantage today, a lot of it can be found in the software and in the connections of the Internet of Things,” said Aaron Hillegass, president and CEO of Big Nerd Ranch, an Atlanta-based mobile app development, training and design firm.

As Hillegass told attendees at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers’ Thinking Forward event last month at AGCO Corporation in Duluth, Georgia, a manufacturer’s ability to harness the power of the Internet of Things to make even small, incremental improvements to its business can help it both serve its customers more effectively and increase its profitability. 

The Benefits of IoT

Manufacturers today are embracing new and cutting-edge ways to engineer and develop equipment, and many of their efforts are centered around successfully embedding software into their offerings. 

The results are staggering, explained Hillegass. Several years ago, the Big Nerd Ranch CEO developed a neural network – a system of hardware or software patterned after the operation of neurons in the human brain – for the U.S. Navy. The computer the Navy purchased for Hillegass for him to conduct his work was mammoth in size and cost untold sums of money. Now, decades later, a standard Tegra X1 chip that consumes 10 watts of power offers literally 10 times the processing speed provided by the computer the Navy bought the Big Nerd Ranch CEO all those years ago. In addition, the Tegra X1 chip is being mounted inside of drones being flown around construction sites to document project progress, gather information on how equipment is being deployed and capture other valuable information.

“That’s pretty cool, right?” asked Hillegass. “Having a 10-watt supercomputer you can mount on a drone means all sorts of problems are attackable. We’re so lucky to live at this time."

Drones are a prime example of existing hardware now available to leverage the power of the Internet of Things to spur innovation, continued Hillegass.

"It’s affordable, it’s off the shelf, and it’s easy to use," he added.

The potential exists for equipment manufacturers to take advantage of a number of benefits of the increased connectivity brought on by the rise of the Internet of Things. Whether they are looking to communicate faster and more efficiently, address safety issues within their organization, tackle organizational waste, or make other operational improvements, the technology is there to help them achieve their goals. In addition, explained Hillegass, the Internet of Things also allows companies to bring something to scale with greater ease than ever before. 

“If you go into Google, that’s what they say every other sentence,” explained Hillegass. “They discuss how much labor they’ve put into something, and then they ask how they can scale it up and get the technology all over the world so it can affect everybody. I think that’s an important step to think about... not just making things faster and cheaper, but making something so it can multiply going forward."

Internet of ThingsIoT Yields Opportunities and Challenges

According to projections from multinational networking and telecommunications equipment and services company Ericsson, about 28 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2021. While the ever-increasing connectedness of the modern world has yielded a wealth of benefits for the equipment manufacturing industry, it also presents manufacturers with the challenge of removing the human element from the work their machines conduct on jobsites and in farm fields.

“At sort of the most basic level, the Internet of Things is giving objects IP addresses,” said Hillegass. "After the idea of putting an IP address on each object in the world, we go to the next level of sophistication with the Internet of Things, which is getting rid of the people.”

The Big Nerd Ranch CEO cited the case of a well-known appliance manufacturer approaching his company awhile back with the idea of embedding a Wi-Fi card into a dryer. The goal was to allow for the dryer to cull the Internet for information on the price of electricity. When the price dropped to a certain level, the dryer would start automatically. 

“This is nifty in a couple of ways,” explained Hillegass. “It’s a whole lot of data, as your dryer is gradually learning what the cost of electricity typically looks like on different days, at different times and in different seasons.”

It's just one example of how machines are being taught to learn as part of a larger effort by manufacturers to optimize product performance and efficiency, all while ensuring the human element is entirely absent from the equation. 

Another opportunity the Internet of Things offers equipment manufacturers comes in the form of two-way communications. Once upon a time not long ago, computers existed in the forms of mainframes and terminals. Users would fill out forms and submit them, the forms would go into the mainframe, and then data would be provided. The Internet works much in the same way, as forms are filled out in a browser, they are submitted, the information is directed to a server, and then data is promptly returned. 

However, thanks to the Internet of Things, communications can now flow two ways.

For example, explained Hillegass, adjusting a home's thermostat from a remote location requires a person to input a request into his or her phone, and it's sent to a server. The server then calls down to the thermostat and changes the temperature. 

“So the commands go in both directions,” he continued. “Clearly in all cases, data flows both ways down the wire. But sometimes the device is driving it, and other times something else on the Internet is driving it.”

IoT and Security

The ongoing development of the Internet of Things hinges on the ability for companies of all types and sizes to know their operational data and proprietary business information is secure. According to Hillegass, true security in an today's era defined by increased connectivity means:

  • All devices are authenticated.
  • All parties involved in communication are identified and are who they say they are.
  • The servers being deployed are legitimate.
  • All information is protected.

The Big Nerd Ranch CEO cited public key encryption as being an incredibly useful tool being employed to ensure wanted individuals are unable to gain access to sensitive organizational information, and he noted the technology can be embedded in the product offerings of today.

“With public key encryption, if you want to send a message to me and make sure no one else can see it, I can publish a key that you can use to encrypt the message for me,” said Hillegass. “But no one else can decrypt it because they don’t have access to the private key.”

The Future of IoT

The future of the Internet of Things will be shaped by a number of factors, not the least of which is the ongoing evolution of cloud computing and how operational data will be stored in the cloud.

According to Hillegass, DevOps - a set of practices that automates the processes between software development and IT teams - will be a critical component in both the evolution of data storage and the development of the Internet of Things. Other factors expected to play a role in shaping the future of the Internet of Things, he continued, are the open standards that will be publicly available for business use, and the means by which companies will be able to access information in the cloud, aggregate information and gather useful insights out of it.

“That’s a nice place to be, where your data is all in one location, and you can cross-reference everything,” added Hillegass.  

The modern world is growing increasingly connected over time, and equipment manufacturers are beginning to realize the potential provided by the ever-developing Internet of Things to make lasting, positive impacts on their respective organizations. The technology is available, it's just a matter of the industry being willing to fully embrace it and invest in it. 

“And when we talk about big equipment in construction, agriculture, manufacturing and mining, we’re talking about huge amounts of money, and small improvements can make a huge difference in real dollars in peoples’ lives,” said Hillegass.

Aaron Hillegass was one of several speakers at AEM's Thinking Forward conference in Duluth, Georgia. The event, held at AGCO Corporation, was the final Thinking Forward event of 2017.