Smart CitiesBy Dusty Weis, AEM Strategic Communications Manager

We’ve been told so often about the technology revolution, perhaps industry leaders have come to expect that, any day now, the “Internet of Things” will come storming across their factory floor like an invading robot army.

But the most intriguing revelation during the Association of Equipment Manufacturers’ recent Thinking Forward conference on the subject of “Smart Cities” was not how any one innovation is reshaping the way society lives and works. It was that, while technology is still evolving at a historic pace, we’re still waiting for the first “smart” city—or “smart” manufacturer—to fully embrace the technology that’s available to them.

“We are not there yet,” said Dr. Larissa Suzuki, a renowned researcher, computer scientist and software engineer. “People are taking the human capital out of the equation.”

Essentially, Dr. Suzuki says people are the technological bottleneck obstructing the next phase of innovation—and she would know.

Considered a foremost expert on the paradigm-bending potential of the so-called “Internet of Things,” or IoT, Dr. Suzuki’s work engineering vast, highly-interconnected systems has been applied to streamline services and provide insights in banking, medicine and the city of London’s infrastructure.  

All too often, she says, the question of how technology will change lives focuses too intently on the technology and loses sight of the people whose lives it would be changing. And she says that mindset could be particularly dangerous to the construction, farming and equipment manufacturing sectors, where companies have been slow to test the waters of the Internet of Things.

Part of the problem could be the trendy, buzzword-heavy jargon that clutters any conversation about the IoT. Leave it to Silicon Valley to make a vast collection of small, networked machines sound like “Zima.”

The Internet of Things concept is actually pretty straightforward. Technology is getting smaller, cheaper and more pervasive, while GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular data networks are growing exponentially. Therefore, it’s easier than ever to equip previously “dumb” everyday objects with “smart” technologies that track performance, monitor conditions and report data to a central source.

There’s no need to mark your calendar for some sci-fi future when the technology will be ready to change the world; Suzuki says it’s ready now.

What’s needed is human innovation, and the will to put that technology to work in unexpected ways. And, as the capital costs of innovation continue to decline, Suzuki believes fortune will favor the bold.

“Don’t be afraid of trying new things and new ways of interfacing with technology,” she told AEM’s Thinking Forward conference.

And that starts with people. Here are just a few examples that are already reshaping industries and cities.

Predictive maintenance: More data, less downtime

Reacting to his “check engine” light in a classic episode of the Simpsons, Homer gasps, “Uh-oh, the tape must have fallen off,” before replacing a strip of electrical tape over the blinking indicator. Not surprisingly, the car breaks down a few moments later.

Check EngineIn some way or another, we’ve each repeated Homer’s mistake in our own lives, with often costly results. But on an industrial scale, in a world where data are cheaper and more readily available than ever, it’s possible that failures to collect information and put it to good use could be costing us billions in preventable breakdowns and downtime.

That’s where predictive maintenance is poised to make a major impact on equipment manufacturing—both on the type of equipment that’s being built and on the manufacturing process itself.

Whether it’s a single piece of industrial equipment or a factory that churns out thousands of them, Dr. Suzuki says that any system can be monitored for a near infinite number of performance metrics. By automating the data collection process through the use of IoT technology, manufacturers can develop a better understanding of how systems work… and when they will fail.

“Why would you wait for an asset to be faulty to try to do something about it?” she asked at AEM’s Thinking Forward conference. “If you can predict that a particular asset is outputting odd data, you can understand something is going on and you can better make decisions about replacing or updating that asset.”

According to the worldwide management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, widespread adoption of predictive maintenance technologies could reduce companies’ maintenance costs by 20 percent, reduce unplanned outages by 50 percent and extend machinery life by years. A report by the firm notes one airplane manufacturer that has already implemented IoT sensors in its business plan:

By providing real-time data, the sensors immediately alert the manufacturer about potential problems, which makes it easy to conduct preventive maintenance and maximize uptime. Other sensors help with parts-inventory management. Together, these IoT enhancements have contributed to 9 percent revenue growth and a 30 percent increase in engine availability. That means airplanes spend more miles in the air and less time on the ground, consistently reducing overall operating costs.”

However, a McKinsey survey of business leaders demonstrated there is still a reluctance to make decisions based on these hard data troves. A frequent part of the problem is a lack of data analytics staff. But the most significant source of the disconnect goes back to Homer’s “check engine” light—most people still trust “good ol’ fashioned gut instinct” more than they trust exhaustive, objective data.

And until we put more faith in the numbers, it’s probably going to cost us.

Virtual reality and augmented reality: more than just video games

A manufacturer plunking down a whole lot of cash for a 3D virtual reality multimedia center might seem a little unorthodox, from a conventional perspective.

Ordering 11 of them, like agricultural and construction equipment manufacturer Case New Holland did, is downright unheard of. But the initial investment paid for itself that quickly, Case IH Vice President Jim Walker told AEM’s Thinking Forward conference.

Walker says the system allows his engineers to manipulate computer designs in ways that have eliminated the need to build many of the expensive prototypes the company once needed. In virtual reality, design teams can analyze assembly processes, inspect ergonomics and sightlines, simulate maintenance to ensure clearance for tools and conduct safety reviews. The VR software interfaces seamlessly with CNH’s computer-aided designs to allow engineers to hone their prototypes to within 97 percent accuracy in a digital environment, creating significant savings in prototype costs and increased productivity.

Virtual RealityThanks to CAD, most drafting tables and slide rules have been collecting dust in the corner for years now. But Dr. Suzuki says that there are still traditionalists who write off virtual reality as the province of kids and video games.

While that’s where many of these technologies were developed, she says the potential applications are too numerous to count. “When your kids are playing games, they are driving an industry that is changing everything we do,” Suzuki said.

As another for-instance, the technology behind the often-mocked Pokémon Go fad could, ultimately, turn industry conventions upside down as well. Using a simplified version of “augmented reality” that superimposed cartoon critters over the urban landscape, the mobile game prompted crowds of people to wander aimlessly throughout cities (and occasionally into traffic) in search of the mythical Pokémon.

But Dr. Suzuki and her team at the University College of London and IBM have worked to develop an augmented reality app that helps users find faulty components, not Pikachu. Their application of the technology envisions “smart” buildings where networked infrastructure pings maintenance crews when it’s in need of service, and augmented reality guides them to the problem component and helps them conduct the repair.

It’s a short leap to see how such technology could be applied to farming and construction equipment. With the right software, Suzuki says the cameras on many modern smartphones are capable of identifying the components of an engine or other complex system and projecting schematics, data and repair instructions over them. If the machines are networked to the phone via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, technicians would be able to view real time performance metrics and analysis.

On a job site, in a repair shop or on an assembly line, augmented reality could soon replace ragged instruction manuals and educated guesswork. “It avoids that waste of time, makes people more productive and reduces the cost of operation,” Dr. Suzuki says.

Forget “tech jobs;” we all work in tech now

With all the attention being focused on how technology will revolutionize business models, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that people are still the most important component in the “Internet of Things.”

But as increased automation has historically reduced the number of people working in fields like construction, farming and manufacturing, those people are understandably concerned that the latest advances might put them out of work.

That’s not necessarily the case, says Longbow Securities Senior Vice President Eli Lustgarten, a research analyst and market advisor for industrial manufacturers the world over. He bluntly told participants at AEM’s Thinking Forward conference, “You don’t need fewer people, you need different people.”

Lustgarten envisions an evolving workforce where notions like “unskilled workers” will become obsolete. If “Internet of Things” technology becomes a part of every job, then, essentially, every worker will have to be skilled in using technology. And when employers already have a difficult time finding workers with the skills they need to be successful on the job, that could pose serious problems for companies that don’t adjust their business models.

Don’t count on the government or schools to take the lead in addressing the problem, either, Lustgarten warns.

Farmer“It’s basically businesses and corporations that have to recognize that they need to internally develop skills to meet their needs,” Lustgarten says. “That will ultimately put pressure on universities, and all the way down through elementary schools.”

Rather than fret over the cost to provide workers with a basic background in technology, Lustgarten says manufacturers should consider it an investment in their workforce. As evolving technologies enable workers to be more productive, he says it’s an investment that should pay for itself over time.

That’s how the city of London is viewing its launch of a new program intended to help construction companies train their workers in emerging technologies. In her work with the Greater London Authority, Dr. Suzuki has helped in its development.

“We’re not saying they have to become computer scientists,” she says. “They just have to understand how to interface with technology in a way that will make them more efficient on the job site.”

But they’re also discovering that getting people to buy into technological advances is a two-way street, Dr. Suzuki says. She warns manufacturers that, just because a piece of equipment is “new” or “cutting edge,” that doesn’t mean it’s going to impress buyers and operators.

McKinsey & Company has found the same in its market research. Instead of creating technology for technology’s sake, the consulting firm notes that innovations should serve people above all else. That means tailoring products to specifically improve safety, convenience and financial returns for businesses.

That can also mean actively listening to end users and addressing their specific needs. In London, Dr. Suzuki says the infrastructure construction community expressed an interest in gaining access to the vast troves of project data the city maintains.

So Suzuki and the Greater London Authority are developing the London 2050 Infrastructure Mapping Application, which consolidates construction and infrastructure plans through 2050 and displays projects on a map.  Utilities, developers and municipal departments contribute to the database, allowing them to identify opportunities to co-locate projects and deliver infrastructure improvements jointly.

Instead of having a power utility dig up and repair a street one week and a water utility dig up that same street a week later, Dr. Suzuki says the mapping application may provide opportunities to reduce costs for infrastructure providers and disruptions for citizens. And it happened because the people developing technology tailored their approach to people, not the technology.

It’s those sorts of innovations that will open up the full potential of the “Internet of Things.” And all we have to do to achieve it, Dr. Suzuki says, is get out of our own way, in a sense.

During an interlude in AEM’s recent Thinking Forward conference on the subject of Smart Cities, one participant quipped, “This is all really interesting, but it’s not like it’s going to have an impact on me. I make steel products you stick in the dirt.”

Internet of Things pioneers like Dr. Suzuki scoff at that notion. In any system, they see an opportunity to collect vast fields of data, analyze it and identify ways that technology can create efficiencies. And while that might require some upfront costs, the potential is there to realize significant long-term savings.

“The small pieces, when you put them together collectively, they make a huge difference,” Suzuki told participants at the AEM event.

No business model is immune. No paradigm is safe. And, with people as both its drivers and its focus, no concept is too big for the still-growing Internet of Things.  

Watch interview with Dr. Larissa Suzuki:

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