The history of the industrial Internet of Things is based on three different technology development stories: network connectivity, processing and storage capacity, and sensors and actuators. Knowing the development timeline of each of these core technologies will also give you a solid understanding of the capabilities of connected devices used in an industrial environment in the corresponding era.
IIoT network connectivity
That second “I” in the acronym stands for the Internet and indicates the importance of networking in IIoT. Until the late 1990s and early 2000s, the default state of computers and computing devices was to disconnect from the Internet: you took special steps to get online and connect. That’s almost the opposite of living in an organization in 2020, where you often have to take special steps to disconnect.
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Most early networking technologies were wired: the connection required cables that physically connected your device to the network. Network bandwidth — the amount of data that can be transferred in a given amount of time — for 10BASE-T Ethernet connections, one of the most widely used standards established in the late 1980s and early 1990s, allowed up to 10 megabits of data per second . Today, wired networks support connections of 1,000 megabits of data per second (1000BASE-T or 1 Gigabit) or even 10 gigabits of data per second (10GBASE-T) for modern Ethernet connections.
Wireless and mobile networks, eliminating the need for cable for every device, represented a major shift for IIoT. Standardized in 1999, 802.11b was one of the first standards to be supported in products from many manufacturers and was a precursor to the Wi-Fi 6E standard introduced in 2020. Not only do modern Wi-Fi devices offer speeds 50 to 800 times faster than previous equipment, but the devices can also perform reliably in much denser radio environments than their predecessors.
Mobile networks, which people rely on for smartphone coverage around the world, have seen similar improvements in speed, capacity and power efficiency from early 2G networks that supported about 0.1 Megabits per second to today’s 5G networks that support connections from Provide 200 Megabits per second or more.
IIoT is also the story of technologies that make different combinations of compromises in range, power consumption and speeds. Radio frequency identification with a range of up to about 300 feet and near-field communication technologies that require close contact are both useful in IIoT environments, where RFID is often used for asset tracking and NFC is used for access control, payments or data exchange.
Other technologies, such as the Long Range Wide Area Network, a kind of low power, wide area networking, or Narrowband IoT, a variant of 4G for IoT, which does not require very high speeds, solve specific problems. Focused groups, such as the Wireless Smart Ubiquitous Networks Alliance, try to solve specific problems related to smart city or utility applications of the Internet of Things.
IIoT storage and processing capacity
Significant improvements in processing power, coupled with greater available storage capacity at a steadily declining cost, have also played a vital role in IIoT history.
Increases in computer processing power are usually summed up in what is known as Moore’s law, which refers to an observation by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors on a microchip roughly doubles every two years, while cost is halved in the same time .
Such a rapid improvement in computing power means that companies have not only been able to make dramatic improvements in the overall processing power of devices in the roughly 40 years of the modern computing revolution since the 1980s, but also that highly capable processors can are made in very small sizes.
Importantly for IIoT purposes, vendors can create hardened chips that can withstand extreme environments such as high/low temperatures, exposure to or immersion in water, and physical shock from drops.
A full history of data storage would cover magnetic tapes, punched cards, and magnetic disks, but a focus on IIoT narrows the focus to modern hard drives, flash memory, and solid-state drives. Modern derivatives of these three technologies make it possible to store multiple terabytes of data in form factors ranging from about the size of a dime to a slim deck of cards – all at a cost of less than $150 per terabyte or so.
IIoT sensors and actuators
The third stream of technologies that tell the story of IIoT are sensors and actuators. Sensors detect things like temperature, light, location, touch, movement or sound. Actuators move or control things. An actuator can trigger the opening or closing of a door lock, the tightening or loosening of a robot arm, the movement of a machine part, or the activation of a heating or cooling system.
Consider digital camera technology to understand how sensors have improved over the decades. In 1994, the Apple QuickTake digital camera was launched, with a maximum resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, just over 307 thousand pixels. In 2022, the iPhone 14 Pro camera will be able to capture images measuring 8,064 x 6,048 pixels, or more than 48 million pixels — about 158 times as many pixels in total. The simple pixel count comparison doesn’t even address changes in light or color sensitivity, speed, use of multiple camera sensors, or advances in computational photography.
A robotic arm that can grab and manipulate a wide variety of objects, such as a piece of paper, grape, wine glass, or brick, holds many of the advancements in actuators. Modern systems not only have the ability to sense these various objects, but also to adjust the pressure appropriately: grab a grape or glass with the same force as a brick and you’ll make a mess. The ability to use many sensors simultaneously also expands the capabilities of IIoT systems.
Challenges and Opportunities in IIoT
Two of the major challenges in IIoT today, security and interoperability, are emerging as a result of the succession of technological developments discussed above. There used to be fewer people and items connected to the internet, so security was less of a concern. Similarly, makers of IIoT devices and systems had little financial incentive to make their systems broadly compatible with competitors’ products: Why should it be easy to switch? Fortunately, collective customer concerns have led to a greater emphasis on both security and interoperability.
What is your view on the IIoT?
Researchers continue to search for solutions to many of the fundamental security, interoperability, and other challenges of IoT and IIoT. What types of IoT and IIoT systems have you deployed? How have these systems changed the way you work? Besides the technologies mentioned above, what other developments do you think have significantly improved IIoT? Mention or message me on Twitter (@awolber) to let me know what other interesting IIoT changes deserve attention.