Building the central nervous system of IIoT

Machines function much like organs in the human body. The brain is the command center, and the central nervous system is responsible for connecting information received from the five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. Your smarts aren’t worth much without the awareness of your environment and your internal condition.

In facilities, the network that connects different machines and sensors is called the industrial internet of things. As evidenced in the consumer IoT marketplace with smart thermostats that “feel” temperature, doorbells that “see” who’s outside and other connected sensor-based devices, brain-to-sensor connectivity is one of the most important facets of IoT technology today.

The problem is in the software brain, which today has a host of disconnected sensory inputs that do not relate to one another. Many consumers buy home IoT devices only to find that each one uses a different protocol, requires a new app to operate and often won’t speak with other devices unless explicitly designed to do so.

Disjointed dashboards such as these only hamper operations and lead to frustrated and disillusioned users. IIoT is experiencing similar growing pains, and that’s why focusing on building the central nervous system for IIoT is the next critical step forward.

Where we are in the IIoT evolution

Although we have a sense of what it should be, IIoT doesn’t really exist yet.

That statement may come as a surprise if you take a look at recent headlines, but the current iteration of IIoT is a collection of varied and incompatible protocols, sensors and companies with proprietary information that has to be forcefully integrated together. There is a lot that history can teach us from previous tectonic shifts as new platforms emerged, such as the internet and smartphone ecosystems. We can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes, as there is a lot at stake here — critical infrastructure, manufacturing, hospitals and data-centers will all be affected by decisions we make today.

Right now, the market has yet to get crowded, reach its inflection point and have a shakeout. But even at the beginning of the hype cycle, there is a compelling future to consider if and when the industry works together to connect everything. The winners in this future will have the most overreaching AI with the best interoperability.

So where do we go from here?

Essential traits for IIoT

A central nervous system for IIoT is an ever-present layer that constantly runs in the background. It connects to multiple data sources and communication channels, and is able to provide the right insight to the right person at the right time — pulling in the relevant data and people to quickly address the issue at hand. In building this central nervous system, we will need to focus on two primary functions.

First, we need to focus on the very basics of network connectivity and interoperability. We need to use a common language, so that everything can operate on the same network and share information. The pump, sensing weakness, needs to be able to communicate with the maintenance tech to let him know of a developing malfunction and automatically order the required spare parts for the repair. At the same time, that same pump, sensing its own temperature rising, needs to be able to communicate with the facilities manager and notify him to reduce the load. This command center will employ AI that is aware of various inputs and act on that information to make changes, notify where necessary and generally connect the dots.

Second, we need to concentrate on optimization. Keeping systems up and running as efficiently as possible requires an overarching layer — a central nervous system — to relay information to the brain for interpretation and action. In the examples above, the pump needs to be aware of its internal health and operating condition in order to notify the right person to take the corrective actions.

Now is the time for a shift in mindset

This is no easy feat. It requires multiple entities working in unison, building bridges between silos that have existed for decades, and finding the right business models to enable this cooperation. New technologies and technology vendors will play a critical role in building the infrastructure, but it’s up to the incumbents — the facility managers, the services providers, the OEMs and the insurance companies — to come to the table with a fresh mindset. Our market is changing rapidly, and we can either be surprised or be proactive and control its trajectory to a better outcome. Let’s build the central nervous system that enables our assets to truly speak across boundaries.

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