During the SAP Radio ‘Future Of Business’ podcast this week a healthy debate emerged on how manufacturing is, will and should adopt Internet Of Things technologies. The conclusion seems to have been drawn that European & North American Manufacturers aren’t ready for this leap, but that consumer adoption will drive it. Computer Weekly best summarises the podcast in its article ‘Manufacturing Industry ‘Not ready for IoT’ says SAP’.
I agree – manufacturing isn’t ready for The Internet Of Things.
But not for the reasons highlighted in the podcast or the article – and I agree that the benefits of IoT adoption for manufacturers (especially larger scale) are potentially enormous, perhaps nothing short of a second industrial revolution if implemented properly.
Age of Plant.
The article and podcast highlight that the average age of industrial machinery has increased lately to the highest since 1938 (in itself a scary statistic), and with investment only running at 3% per annum it will take considerable time to replace this ageing kit. The problem with this is predicated on older equipment not being compatible with the IoT – something which isn’t always true.
Older plant and machinery can generally be retrofitted with interfaces to allow it to be part of the IoT, and a good industrial integrator will do this relatively cheaply; so while old plant makes it more complicated it’s not the biggest barrier to manufacturing adoption of IoT, proving both benefit and security are.
Manufacturers, by virtue of what they do, tend to work in a very pragmatic, demonstrable way: they measure everything they can to look for improvements. Quick, easy, big wins are rare in manufacturing these days – it’s minor, incremental (often CI or Lean driven) changes which, when repeated, make gains for manufacturers. Plant Managers want to see real benefit for deploying a technology, and plant maintenance teams are often skeptical of ‘high brow’ IT concepts; it’s simply not a world they operate comfortably in.
Talking about “the interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded computing devices within the existing internet infrastructure“ is likely to garner an awful lot of blank faces with manufacturing managers… but if you talk about the ability to monitor, control and report on plant from anywhere on the planet, then they are interested. If you can talk of predicting plant failure by combining data from two devices across a plant, or of automatically or remotely controlling equipment based on trends and analysis then you’re demonstrating benefit. It comes down to money.
As an IT industry we need to stop talking our own language, and talk that of the target audience if we want to ‘sell’ our vision and allow business to benefit from the huge possibilities the IoT offers.
The biggest problem though will be similar to that faced by the now almost ubiquitous ‘cloud computing’ in its infancy: Security. The cloud had to overcome both security and privacy concerns to gain trust before people would start allowing their data to be held and processed on servers they didn’t own and couldn’t physically touch. In many regards there is a similarity here to how SAP see IoT being driven into manufacturing: consumers did cloud first!
Manufacturers guard their plant as valuably as they do personal data. It’s their bread and butter… without it nothing leaves the door and cash doesn’t come through the front door. Worse still, if the production lines stop then you have mounting costs of a stagnant workforce and supply chain problems further down the line. This is why manufacturers protect their plant (and probably a reason a lot of it is old – it works and the risks are known!).
I know of major manufacturers who separate all plant floor manufacturing equipment entirely, some physically and some logically, from their main office LAN to ensure that production continues, having been bitten by IT problems stopping production before. Convincing them to allow devices to talk directly to the internet is going to be a tough ask, especially with the recent vulnerability exploits in SCADA fresh in their minds.
What happens if an IoT connected PLC or device loses connectivity?
How do we ensure only authorised access to the data and control of an IoT-enabled plant?
Can we ‘pull the plug’ and continue operating if something bad happens?
Where is the redundancy?
These are all questions manufacturers will ask before they allow IoT devices into their day to day world, and as an industry we need to have convincing answers to all of them.
We’ll have to demonstrate that those devices are safe, secure and will deliver real benefit… we should concentrate on finding a way of doing this (perhaps something like the Cloud Security Alliance?) rather than berate the age of the kit manufacturers are using to make their living, because the benefits to manufacturing are huge.