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Internet of Things – Improving the Value Chain!

By Nilesh Kakade

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A connected world!

For the last few years, the buzz around ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) has caught the fancy of many organisations worldwide. Destined to be a major game changer, now every organisation worth its salt is working towards the IoT aspect. So, what exactly is IoT? Though there are many definitions; in simple terms, it’s about connecting devices (or objects) both wired and wireless over the internet protocol viz. cell phones, coffee machines, smart homes, RFID tags, wearable devices et al. And it’s just not about devices or machines alone, it would include humans, animals and just about any device or object on planet earth and maybe beyond! These objects have in-built embedded sensors which help communicate in real time.

Improving the Value Chain – Industry 4.0

With the cost of electronics, computers and semiconductors coming down, many of the devices and applications based on these have already been deployed in most developed countries. For eg – With IoT and cloud integration, it is now possible to monitor and manage operations on a global scale, track goods along the retail supply chain, monitor health of patients remotely and even send a distress signal to the health authorities. Naturally, with countless of devices and protocols working in tandem, and its ability to link the physical world to the Internet and other data networks, IoT is also termed as Internet of Everything (IoE). So, here in, we are talking about a large ecosystem connected by myriad devices. The point to note is that this ecosystem is humongous, more or less always connected and constitutes a smart system. At any point of time there are billions of devices talking to each other and over the years these numbers would increase significantly.

The analyst firm Gartner says that by 2020 there will be over 25 billion connected devices.

Kevin Ashton (born 1968) is a British technology pioneer who cofounded the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which created a global standard system for RFID and other sensors. He is known for inventing the term “the Internet of Things” to describe a system where the Internet is connected to the physical world via ubiquitous sensors.

— Wikipedia

Now, when we talk about IoT, one must remember that this information, or ‘data’ to be precise, comes from various sources which by itself is a sum total of a larger system. So, again, we have M2M (machine-to-machine) conversation, P2P (person-to-person), P2M (person-to-machine) and vice versa. So, in this scenario, every object is identified with a unique number (currently IPv4) and in the near future, every object would be identified by its unique IPv6 number which is future proof to take care of ‘n’ number of objects that would be added to the ecosystem.

IPv6 can theoretically hold 2^128 IP addresses. Go, figure out!

2^128 = 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456

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So, when we talk about the value chain, we talk about optimising operations which would enhance productivity with minimal downtime and give real time update/status such as where a certain product or person is located, what the temperature is at a particular location and if any preventive action needs to be taken. Let’s take the cement industry in particular. The Internet of Things with respect to manufacturing production is ideally referred to as Industry 4.0.

In the cement vertical, work is often carried out in dangerous and unpredictable environments. Besides, each site presents unique challenges in the supervision of costly machinery, logistics and labour. Moreover, no two sites or projects are the same and work hazards pose innumerable problems thereby frustrating the very efforts to systematise and streamline operations ultimately adding to more downtime.

Naturally, with emphasis on health and safety, it makes sense of placing sensors in manufacturing units and mining equipment to measure product performance and operating conditions. This in turn would give feedback in real time. For eg: IoT sensors can prevent accidents and injury by sounding an alarm or shutting off machinery when a worker approaches danger such as cordoning an area where blasting is about to take place. Another example being, segregation of machinery via Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) while passing over a conveyor belt. Also, sensors can also protect worker’s health by tracking exposure to harmful chemicals and radiation. In such a scenario, it would be ideal to send automated machines fitted with real time monitoring cameras. By providing the management with greater visibility into the safety of work environments, the instances of physical harm, injury or death can be substantially avoided to a large extent.

At present, Ambuja Cements Ltd (ACL) has installed RFID and Global Positioning System (GPS) for better coordination of vehicle movements at Ambujanagar, Maratha, Bhatapara and Rabriyawas and is constantly monitoring workers safety.

Going a step further, one can look forward to predictive maintenance and inventory optimisation. This is especially needed in a manufacturing setup as complicated and tedious as a cement factory. Herein, predictive maintenance would involve using sensors to monitor machinery continuously to avoid breakdowns and determine when and where maintenance will be required besides keeping a check on inventory. This would improve asset utilisation and also considerably minimising human error. Likewise, sensors can provide remote monitoring, tracking through GPS, and control of equipment thereby increasing safety awareness and also adding significantly to the bottom line. As a result, the supply chain is enhanced to a large extent. And this overall gives a fillip to your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) as your team now has real time data with which they can address complicated queries and market risks.

Work in progress – technological challenges

As we have seen in above examples, the IoT is already here but only varying in scope and application. Major companies such as AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM, and Intel who have enormous financial muscle and R&D capability have cofounded the Industrial Internet Consortium and are working to establish interoperability standards across the ecosystem so that there is seamless connectivity wherein information can be accessed and shared more reliably. However, at present this is a work in progress as there are many standards and multiple formats which need to talk to each other without compromising safety and privacy issues. In technological terms, it can be cited at ‘interoperability’ which has to overcome far too many protocols in the existing framework.

Another case in point is the form factor as in the near future devices would shrink but must be in a position to deliver the demanding work flow without compromising on power. The iWatch is one such example. To overcome this, semiconductor companies must think of innovative solutions for addressing the need for optimal power consumption and power management features in their products. Besides it would also have to build them resilient enough to handle multi-tasking. However, the most intriguing question remains about security and privacy issues that need to be addressed. Ideally, IoT devices will have to be judiciously used for critical tasks viz. medical environments wherein your data is accessible to the world at large. Ideally, protocols have to be in place to prevent hacking, loss of intellectual property and other potential breaches.

Privacy and Security

Though it’s appropriate to celebrate the birthing of new technology, potential hazards concerning privacy and security just cannot be ignored. With respect to IoT, it is quite obvious that data are shared across the ecosystem and it would be rather difficult to gauge that one’s data has not been compromised or interfered with? Experts are of the opinion that security must ideally be built into the design of these devices.

Ideally a combination of hardware and software to maintain the integrity of data which is typically the case of embedded systems. However, with so many connected devices at any given point of time created and licensed by different manufactures it would become quite difficult to pinpoint the exact source. There have been many cases of hacks over IoT devices in the recent past, besides active demonstration by experts who have showcased their talent at hacking to prove the vulnerability of such devices.

For this, the experts have suggested developers in IoT to take preventive care by keeping security in mind at the design stage itself by ideally having access control and device authentication, being prepared for security breaches, and addressing the same with regular patches and updates to keep the devices safe from hacking. Other than that, policy makers would have a tough time in ratifying standards as new technology every time brings in new issues. There are two sides of a coin. In anticipation of ‘smart cities’, Google has already designed and developed its autonomous ‘self driving car’ which would not need any drivers! Then there are drones which would deliver as per one’s needs. Here in, a whole new chapter is added which concerns the privacy, security, and ownership as these are ‘machines’ and who would be liable if anything goes wrong? It’s likely that existing regulations will have to be reviewed and updated. Nevertheless, lawmakers have a task on hand!

Car hacking example
Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, the famous car hackers (ethical) recently demonstrated that some Fiat Chrysler cars can be remotely hijacked prove a case in point about the dangers of connected things. Well, they did this for alerting the car maker; but not all hackers can be trusted!

Digital India – Smart Cities
The idea of Digital India has taken shape with the PM Mr Narendra Modi chalking out plans on its extensive rollout. Here we are talking about ‘smart cities’ wherein entire cities having their own assured electricity, power, energy and water needs have been intelligently designed with sustainability as its core ideal and without harming the environment. They would have highly advanced overall infrastructure with efficient urban mobility and public transport, intelligent traffic management system, best of IT and where e-governance would play a key role with citizen participation concerning their safety and security. The Navi Mumbai project in collaboration with The City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) announced by the Govt of Maharashtra in December 2015 is one such example which is being planned with a budget of Rs 35,000 crore.

This again is boost for the IoT as many of the components needed would be used in the cities of the future would have intelligent networks guiding the day-to-day administration tasks. Recently, Department of Electronics and IT Secretary, Mr JS Deepak in New Delhi while speaking at the CII National IoT Summit said that, “A policy framework around Internet of things is in consultation stage. As per reports global IoT industry would be $300 billion (roughly Rs. 19,80,089 crore) by 2020 globally. The idea of IoT policy is that India should have 5-6 per cent share at least of global industry,” while speaking at the CII National IoT Summit.

Smart Homes
We have heard a lot about smart homes wherein the connected devices heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) at your home are controlled by your smart phone. Besides the regular comforts that most of the modern day devices provide, a smart home is built ideally for security purpose wherein the cameras and sensors installed at your home give real time updates. Detection systems such as fire alarm, gas leak and even unauthorised entry triggers an alarm which helps the owner shut down or lock the apartment. In spite of all the goodies, one can still be exposed to hackers as one of the connected devices may not be compliant to security standards. Any connected device “can be a pivot point into your network,” points out Bruce Snell, cyber-security and privacy director for Intel Security. The only solution is to remain alert and keep updated with technology.

The road ahead

The Internet of Things slowly but steadily is opening up opportunities we are just beginning to understand. India in particular can gain in this aspect taking into consideration the experience of countries wherein IoT have been deployed on a large scale. Barring the hacking aspect which every technology is susceptible to, IoT has plenty of potential as it will serve as game changer both at the social and economic levels. The technological part is best left to the developers who have to take the best possible scenario in building robust applications which would benefit the technological and human ecosystem at large. The rest is implementation and adhering to guidelines.

Nilesh Kakade is a journalist by profession writing on high-end technology features, conceptualising editorial specials, managing events and also contributing to research reports. Associated with the EFY Group for over a decade.

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