The challenges of standards in industrial IoT

The common wisdom is that consumer IoT will and is rolling out more quickly than industrial IoT because consumer products have quicker product cycles than industrial applications do. Put another way, connecting something like a thermostat is a self contained proposition while adding connectivity to a manufacturing floor or an electrical grid, for example, requires greater complexity and coordination with other connected devices.

While this assumption is mostly true, it’s not the whole story. Industrial IoT is occurring. It’s just occurring in a slower, piece mail fashion. But one thing industrial IoT does have in common with consumer IoT is that standards remain a hurdle to adoption. Industrial IoT encompasses manufacturing and machine control but also is broad and includes areas like smart cities, transportation, oil and gas, and distributed power generation (For an analysis IoT and the energy industry see “Internet of Things: the influence of M2M data on the energy industry.”)

Industrial connectivity has its own challenges. I recently spoke with the AVnu Alliance, which is working on open standards that would create Time Sensitive Networking (TSN). Such a standard for ethernet allows for synchronized timing for different nodes on a network or time stamping of different actions. AVnu has a number of enterprise leaders keen on cracking the industrial IoT space, including Belden, National Instruments, GE, Cisco, Marvell and others.

“To accelerate that industrial take up, we came to the conclusion a few years ago that a more deterministic network capability was required. And we should update the key internet technologies to start to recognize that to help the industrials, to give them standard networking that’s more reliable, and gives them performance and characteristics that they’re looking for in terms of building automation and control applications,” said Paul Didier, who works on architecting control systems for manufacturing at Cisco.

Having a common time standard, for example, is critical to coordinating tasks on a network. Additionally, there are reliability standards related to reserving bandwidth for traffic and mechanisms for latency control so that measurements on different parts of a network can be reliably understood. If you think of a networked factory floor and you ask different nodes what time it is, you need highly consistent answers if you intend to add safe and reliable control to that network.

The work AVnu is doing on TSN is just one example of the type of standards work that is required to make industrial IoT easier to implement and converge systems onto a common networking backbone. TSN is one piece of the puzzle but we’re also likely to see redesigned hardware connectivity like easier to install and lighter weight ethernet cabling technologies to ease industrial networking.

Improving interoperability at the industrial level would create a free flow of data, which in itself is critical because it would unlock analytics and business intelligence opportunities. But to get to some of the more advanced analytics, we first need consistent and reliable data. The siloing and stranding of data will become an increasing issue for enterprise going forward. The future is a world in which inaccessible data becomes a stranded asset.

In consumer IoT, conversely, that data can be quickly analyzed in the cloud because the company that created the networked product did so with analytics in mind and typically only has one device to worry about. Though just like industrial IoT, consumer spaces like the smart home are grappling with getting disparate devices in the home to talk to each other as well as create a central place to integrate data from different devices in order to improve user experiences.

The good news on the industrial end is that what’s driving implementation of these standards is long term improvements in operational efficiencies. And unlike consumers, who have short time horizons for evaluating ROI, enterprise will look at a longer time horizon when making an investment and evaluating the benefits. Or at least that’s what all of the major networking, standards, and chipmakers are betting on.