Posts Tagged ‘Internet of Things’

The Internet of Things promises to transform the way humans, through their machines, interact with the Internet, and when you think about it, it’s already here.  Manufacturing is a case in point.

Today, sensors attached to shop floor equipment are capable of sending reams of production and equipment data back to the ERP systems, which hold that data in a repository for future use or analysis.

Handheld scanners are used to track the movement of parts, pieces and production.  Beyond that, they also aid warehouse workers in the movement — the picking, packing and shipping – of countless SKUs.  Everyone from the folks walking the floor to the folks in the front and back offices can have access to the same production and inventory information, in real time, at the same time.

Smartphones in the customer service and CRM arenas have made possible up-to-date information on all manner of data, from customer sales and orders to inventory quantities on-hand to sales reports across the territory or across the globe.  From checking into hotels to allowing physicians to check in on patient records from their phones and tablets, the interconnectedness of machines, ERP and the web has reached critical mass.

It’s the full-flowering of Bill Gates’ long-ago promise of IAYF: Information At Your Fingertips.

By 2020 according to one industry analyst, fully 95% of products are expected to be IoT enabled.  (We think that’s a bit optimistic, but their point is well taken nonetheless.)

All these advances have their advantages of course.  They save time – lots of it.  They save money – again, lots of it.  They speed up delivery, improve customer responsiveness, enable customers to become self-serving, and generally raise the level of satisfaction among a wide range of customers and their supporting companies.

For companies today frankly, there is little choice any more: adopt and adapt, or be left behind.  Sometimes the toughest question becomes: where do we start?  Luckily, there’s no shortage of consultants and solution providers willing and capable of providing the necessary guidance to get started.  About the only thing you can’t do any more is… wait.



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Did you know that one of the largest “hack” attacks in internet history occurred in 2016 when signals generated by tens of thousands of baby monitors, webcams and like devices across America and Europe were hacked in a way that took down broad swaths of the web?

Yes, baby monitors.  These simple internet-hooked devices lack the security of your PC or phone and make them vulnerable to attack.  And there are no fewer than eight million of these devices in existence, according to editors at Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

A fellow named Louis Parks, who runs a small Connecticut company called SecureRF Corp., says he has the answer.  His firm sells software aimed at safeguarding the IoT (Internet of Things) – in a really efficient fashion.  So efficient in fact, that his software runs very clean on some pretty weak hardware.  It’s all in the math, he says, which “allows us to work with smaller numbers and simpler processes.”

Apparently, it’s a lot of math.  Most security relies on exchanges of public and private “keys,” those very large numbers that are used to generate shared secret codes that authenticate that you are who you say you are, and which encrypt modern-day communications.

It turns out that many smart devices (IoT things) are easy to hack because they “don’t have the battery life to handle powerful chips, and they struggle to use standard keys.”  Instead, they rely on passwords that don’t secure traffic between themselves and the internet.

SecureRF’s software manages with its sophisticated underlying math to require calculation of only 8-bit number to provide secure encryption, versus the 256 digits required with standard software.  The benefit, it says, is that its security software can then run 100 times faster – and on lower-power chips – than conventional software, all while using just half the memory.  The result is the ability to run securely on far less security-sophisticated devices.  Like baby monitors.

SecureRF has licensed its technology to others, like Intel and ARM.  They’re focused less on the chip itself, and more on the communication between chips.  They’ve quietly spent over ten years researching ways to defend various types of mobile communications and the devices that depend on them, including RFID and near-field communications.  They shifted their attention to IoT devices in recent years and are counting on the fee paid by chip makers – starting at just a few cents per chip.

That’s an added layer of “protection” for baby monitors for which their creators likely never envisioned the need.  And it’s all in the math.

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IoT3As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, some smart products are starting to look pretty dumb.

A water bottle that tracks your H2O intake… A bowl that tracks your dog’s H2O intake… an umbrella that reminds you not to leave it behind… a tampon that reminds you when it’s time for a change?

All are products that have been announced by startups, or are already shipping.  How about an egg tray that, when nearing empty, reminds you to buy more?  Does everything really go better with Bluetooth?

Joanna Stern notes these in her May 26th article pointing out that between the falling price of parts, the popularity of crowdsourcing and the flood of cash into the tech industry, any object with room for a small battery and a chip is ripe for IOT-ing.  Not that that’s a good thing, as she notes a new startup called MyFlow has just announced the smart tampon.

Now, to be clear, some ideas have their merits. Smart pill bottles for seniors or an EpiPen that sends out an alert when someone goes into anaphylactic shock make sense and could well save lives.  A connected thermostat saves wasted energy, and thus money.  But too often, some of the latest devices, such as those noted above, seem like solutions in search of problems.  After all, as one such startup points out, is it really true that “Remembering to floss your teeth is hard…?”

Now, to be sure, there are some smart innovations on the way.  The Week magazine pointed out a few in its May 27th issue that may make sense for some.  The Garageio sends an alert when you’ve left your garage door open so you can close it remotely.  The Stack Lightbulb changes brightness depending on the time of day.  Perhaps the Oral-B that alerts you when you’re brushing too hard might be useful to some.  And who wouldn’t want Samsung’s SmartThings, which can set off the sound of barking dogs when it detects an intruder?

As Stern notes in her WSJ article wrap-up, we “live in a time of so much experimentation, where every day we can witness the evolution of what becomes – and provides value — as a connected computer.  But let’s not let these inventions take away our own ability to remember events and mind personal matters.  After all, shouldn’t you already know anything your Bluetooth-connected toilet seat would like to tell you?”

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iicAn article in the September issue of Bloomberg Businessweek provides a glimpse into what’s really happening that will affect manufacturing’s future, with two competing consortiums now attempting to define just that, one in the U.S. and one in Germany.  So far, the U.S. appears to have the edge, according to the BB article.

It seems that some in the German manufacturing space – including a family-owned maker of metalworking machinery called Trumpf – are worried about the risk that a Google or an Apple might master the manufacturing world.  So, they and other German manufacturers are participating in a program called “Industrie 4.0.”

The name derives from the succession of industrial revolutions: first, there was the 18th century version when mechanized production was driven by steam; the second occurred around the dawn of the 20th century, powered by electricity; the third began mid-century with computer-regulated production; this fourth wave is comprised of machines to talking to one another, or what’s frequently referred to nowadays as the IoT, or Internet of Things.

It is predicted that by 2020, Industrie 4.0-related projects “will account for half of capital investment by German manufacturers,” notes the article, worth about $45 billion according to PwC.  Globally, industrial internet investment will top $500 billion by then, up from just $20 billion in 2012.  Thus, the German consensus is summed up best by the head of the German Chambers of Commerce when he says to avoid falling behind “[we] must maintain contact with the customer and not lose out” to software companies that might end up with valuable market data.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., a consortium has been formed by AT&T, Cisco, GE, Intel and IBM called the Industrial Internet Consortium, or IIC.

At the heart of the matter lies the fact that currently, there are no established standards for machine to machine communications.  Both groups want to make it easier to enable such critical supply chain communications.  The goal is to reduce downtime “by anticipating when a factory will have spare capacity or need replacement parts,” for example.  Built-in sensors can collect all sorts of data that would help to better allocate resources and thus cut energy costs by an estimated 25%.

But while the U.S. consortium has put a lot of money, mind and muscle behind its initiative, the German consortium (“Mittlestand”) “acts primarily as a cheerleader and offers little in the way of financial help,” according to Bloomberg.  Politicians and labor appear to have the strong hand in setting its agenda, and they focus mostly on sponsoring academic research.

By contrast, the IIC coordinates trials of new technologies and has launched 11 experiments, including a system to track handheld tools to ensure they’re used effectively and a 100-gigabyte-per-second network to connect machinery.  GE alone claims to have invested over $1 billion into IIC.  Today, the group has grown to 200 members and even includes Germany’s SAP.  While the German effort is driven by “government, and is unmistakably part of industrial policy, the IIC is already getting together to do joint experiments,” noted the directory of the D.C. based Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity & Innovation.”

But this is likely to be a decades-long race, and while the U.S. may hold an early lead by taking many small steps quickly, the German approach is more “find the model first and then move toward the implementation.”

They say “to the victor go the spoils” but in this case, the race is a marathon, and one can’t help thinking that there will be many, many winners.


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chip fabIn a recent article from Bloomberg (“Focus On/Manufacturing” August 2015) the editors note that Intel and Texas Instruments have pretty much by now perfected the sci-fi form of manufacturing known as chip fabs – pristine, windowless clean rooms where some of the world’s most sophisticated chips are fabricated.  They run 24 hours a day, knowing that these multi-billion dollar plants could be made obsolete in as little as five years or so, as new technologies and capabilities leapfrog the old.

Now these firms want to show the rest of the world how it’s done.  The goal: an estimated (by IHS) $185 billion global market for the gear to automate industrial production.  To do so, firms like Intel and others are prodding companies to bring the IoT (Internet of Things) – physical objects embedded with electronics that talk to one another – into factories.

According to Bloomberg, on the assembly line of tomorrow, “industrial robots now caged off to prevent them from accidentally injuring human workers will move about more freely.  A machine outfitted with optical and motion sensors would be able to detect a hand that is delivering a tray of parts and adjust its movements so as not to inflict damage.”

Intel is also working to make technology for humans on the shop floor less error prone, including gloves that use chips to power a display on the wrist.  If an assembly worker correctly completes a task, a large green check mark appears; if not, a red crosses flashes on the screen – a useful accessory first conceived by a group of ex-BWM employees that could become a useful accessory in auto and electronics plants.

While autonomous robots may be years away, Ethernet connections are now making a real entrance onto the floor, while Wi-Fi, per Bloomberg, has hardly made a dent, meaning most plants don’t have the communications infrastructure – yet – to support the Internet of Things.  But it’s only matter of time.

This is partly by design however, it must be noted: Hackers cannot penetrate systems that aren’t connected to the outside, as the IoT, by definition, would.  As the head of embedded processing for Texas Instruments wisely noted, “The best way to protect your system is to disconnect it from the rest of the world… while the very idea of IoT is to connect it to the rest of the world.”

To allay these concerns, TI is pushing the development of multiple networks, so that a wireless link that transmits information on the internal workings of a machine can’t be hijacked to take control of the machine itself.  This is similar to the recent staged hack of a Jeep Cherokee that made news in July.

Still, as Intel is showing, advances in shop floor IoT have demonstrated benefits.  At one unnamed Intel facility, sensors and software correctly identified that pumps used to manufacture silicon wafers were about to fail.  The clue was found in irregularities in the pumps’ normal pattern of vibrations, detected by this sophisticated application of IoT.

For the near future, it’s thought that selling companies on the use of electronics for somewhat “discrete” functions, such as maintenance, will be a much easier sell than overhauling entire factories so every machine’s data can be parsed by computers.  But some do see a day when “factories will be able to talk directly to warehouses, which will be in communication with stores, which will allow companies to tailor production more carefully to demand,” as the article’s editors note.

The grand goal of this smart manufacturing is to create the ultimate supply chain – and if technology and computers have proven anything to us, it’s that it is only a matter of when, not if.



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IoT2While the IoT (“Internet of Things”) promises a plethora of interconnected of devices and a boost to productivity and lifestyle alike, builders of these newly web-connected devices from refrigerators and air conditioners to automobiles and medical devices would be wise to slow the truck down just a tad.

Why?  Security concerns.  Like insulin-interrupters (medical devices) and mobile hackers (automobiles) and a lot of things in between.  A recent article in the July 18, 2015 issue of The Economist on cybersecurity illustrates by example some of the threats that perhaps not enough folks are thinking about.

It starts innocently enough.  Mattel has a new Barbie doll that with a chip that “listens.”  Ask Barbie a question and she uses her built-in wifi connection to connect to a data center that comes up almost instantly with an apt reply.

At home, smart thermostats learn about their owners’ heating and cooling preferences and adjust themselves accordingly.  Insulin pumps are being computerized for diabetics that instantly relay their vital signs to their doctors.

What do these all have in common?  Not a lot of defenses against modern day hackers.

But then, think back not long ago to the original internet: Who was worried about worms, viruses and hackers then?  Now, we worry about cars being hijacked by hackers (witness the recent huge Jeep recall when it was discovered that a hacker outside the car could take over its controls).  People fear diabetics being murdered, as the article points out, by having their pumps disabled remotely (it’s been done, sans the murder part), or thieves hacking a home’s temperature settings to learn when its residents are away.

The issue here is whether manufacturers – with little internet security experience, or even the need for it up til now – can thwart a determined hacker.  Most haven’t even been thinking about it much.  At least not until now.  Most widget-makers have little experience with these things.  They are mechanical engineers by training and, as one European car maker noted, “suddenly we have to become security developers, cryptography experts, and so on, and we have no experience of how to do all that.”

Most computer and software companies have learned that perfectly secure code is a myth.  Often, companies like Google and Apple actually pay hackers to find holes in their security, then patch them.  It’s a never-ending cat chasing its tail problem of course – at least in today’s technology.

But the biggest threat, The Economist article notes, is that “companies have few incentives to take security seriously.”  Just as in the Internet of the early 1990s, most of these threats are still on the horizon.  So getting security wrong today has, for the moment “no impact on a firm’s reputation or profits.”  Expect that to change before long, especially “in industries where the consequences of a breach are serious.”

Just as in the early years of the train era, when it took many boiler explosions and crashes before railways started taking safety seriously, and in the auto industry, which really only started getting serious about safety in the 1970s, safety and security protections will come to the Internet of Things – especially where real safety issues are involved.

But it’s going to take awhile, and a few bumps and bruises – and probably worse – along the way.  Just something to be thinking about…


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InterconnectionsA trio of firms that includes GE, Gartner Research and Cisco are moving forward on initiatives or making strong predictions regarding the “Internet of Things,” according to a recent article by Joe Panettieri, at Information-Management.com.  The Internet of Things is defined as embedded computing devices interconnected with the existing Internet infrastructure.  Examples include automobiles with built-in sensors; smart thermostats; and home appliances that are networked for remote monitoring.  Among their findings, predictions and progress points…

  • The Internet of Things (IoT) will include 26 billion units installed by 2020, Gartner predicts. By that time, IoT product and service suppliers will generate incremental revenue exceeding $300 billion, mostly in services, Gartner forecasts.
  • There will be more mobile devices and smartphones connected than the total global population by 2015, according to Cisco. By 2020, more than 5 billion people will be connected, not to mention 50 billion things, Cisco forecasts.
  • Big companies see IoT opportunities from different angles. GE, for instance, refers to the global network connecting people, data and machines as the Industrial Internet. Moreover, the Industrial Internet has the potential to add $10 trillion to $15 trillion to the GDP (global domestic product) from 2012 to 2032, CEO Jeff Immelt has predicted. GE is investing $1 billion to develop related Industrial Internet technologies and applications.
  • For IoT to really thrive, vendors and customers will need to embrace open standards that improve device monitoring and management; big data information gathering and analytics; and overall network communications. Key IoT standards initiatives are underway at the IEEE Standards Association.
  • More than 100 companies are already embracing new open-source standards, including consumer electronics companies, home appliance makers, auto makers, cloud providers, retailers, software developers and more.
  • The increasing digitization and automation of the multitudes of devices deployed across different areas of modern urban environments are set to create new security challenges to many industries, according to Gartner. Significant security challenges will remain as the big data created as a result of the deployment of myriad devices will drastically increase security complexity. This, in turn, will have an impact on availability requirements, which are also expected to increase, putting real-time business processes and, potentially, personal safety at risk, Gartner asserts.
  • The impact of the IoT on storage infrastructure is another factor contributing to the increasing demand for more storage capacity, and one that will have to be addressed as this data becomes more prevalent. The focus today must be on storage capacity, as well as whether or not the business can harvest and use IoT data in a cost-effective manner, Gartner asserts.
  • Existing data center WAN links are sized for the moderate-bandwidth requirements generated by human interactions with applications. IoT promises to dramatically change these patterns by transferring massive amounts of small message sensor data to the data center for processing, dramatically increasing inbound data center bandwidth requirements, Gartner said.


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