IoT: An Expensive Human-to-Machine Interface

Sept. 28, 2015
Many technologies try to get the digital and computer world to work more seamlessly with an analog and natural world. Now, connected devices...

Many technologies try to get the digital and computer world to work more seamlessly with an analog and natural world. Now, connected devices are ushering in the first revolution since the industrial revolution. The technology that is changing is not foundational, but one based on communication. The mass production of steel was a new process—a paradigm shift—while technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT) is a way we are interacting and communicating with the similar processes from the industrial revolution. IoT is a glorified human-to-machine interface (HMI). While this new technology is impressive, often IoT is the same foundation we have always been standing on, just in a new application. It has been rebranded, like additive manufacturing when it became 3D printing.

What is making IoT possible, in my opinion, is economics. Sensors have been used to communicate to HMIs for years. IoT is moving screens on the side of a machine and electronic cabinets to a phone or mobile device. This technology is useful, but I see some of it as unnecessary bells and whistles. Everyone is talking about optimizing IoT, machine-to-machine, and other buzzwords, but if the new technology isn’t able to pay for itself, a company must be careful when investing. IoT has saved money and increased production for some industries, but there are other new technologies increasing communication, economy, and safety. To understand IoT, you must understand what you are sensing, what that tells you about what is happening in the process, and if that information justifies the investment.

With economics in mind, the supply chain needs to be considered. For example, a $3,000 camera system might not seem worth it if the application is monitoring a shelf of inventory. Someone can look on a shelf and see if more material, parts, etc., need to be ordered. On the other hand, a connected device could fill out and even place an order to fulfill a bill of materials if it registers inventory needs that do not match what is currently on the shelf. This might free up several employees and save occasional inventory mistakes that lead to downtime. Since inventory is counted as a taxable asset, many companies want to operate with as minimal inventory as possible around tax time. Reducing taxable inventory may justify an expensive camera system. To go a step further, a company could purchase an industrial camera for only a few hundred dollars, then use open-source and programming lesson resources online to develop a custom system for their application. This may sound extreme, but while industry experts are saying IoT and connected devices will top $100 billion by 2016, it may be valuable for a company to invest in connected and embedded projects in continuous education for employees. Not only will you increase your employees’ value and the company’s, but you and your employees will be able to make smarter investments when it comes to IoT and know where and why it is needed.         

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