Industrial Assets Often Outlive Connectivity Technology—What Are You Going to do About it?
Neither wireless nor wired connectivity options are immune to the march of time, but IoT developers can adopt strategies for prolonging asset life.
Editor’s Note: In February MultiTech joined the Board of Governors for the IoT M2M Council (IMC). Intel is one of the organization’s Board-Member companies.
The Internet of Things is showing its age—and I don’t mean its infancy. Although media hype might lead you to believe that the IoT is brand new or next, I’m here to tell you that in the industrial world, IoT is old hat. Public transportation systems have relied on remote connectivity since the early 20th century, factory equipment started to become widely connected in the 1960s, and who can forget the groundbreaking introduction of the first connected cars with the launch of General Motor’s OnStar, more than 20 years ago.
Of course, connectivity technologies have advanced tremendously in that time, and those advances are only accelerating. Which presents a serious challenge to anyone trying to get a 10- to twenty-year life out of capital assets. The earliest cellular networks were shut down back in 2008 and 2009, causing manufacturers across many industries to scramble for a replacement to their Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA)-enabled systems to ensure continuous service.
Today in the U.S. connected devices are going dark due to AT&T’s 2G sunset, a move likely to be followed by carriers around the world sooner rather than later. Even wired assets are not immune to the march of time. The copper wire backbone of the world’s first telephony systems began rolling out more than 100 years ago and is still operational today. However, the cost to maintain those networks is on the rise, and telecom companies are actively encouraging users to transition to lower-cost technologies by increasing costs and halting service level agreements.
So, what’s an IoT developer to do?
The simplest, if least sexy, answer is to retrofit existing equipment with an add-on connectivity device (Figure 1). Analog to digital converters can easily upgrade an asset designed to communicate using Plain Old Telephone Service, aka POTS, to newer Ethernet or wireless communications, allowing users to get a few more years out of their assets.
Moreover, a host of industrial wireless modems, routers and gateways are available to connect unconnected assets already in the field, whether vending machines, factory equipment, generators, utility meters or countless other industrial assets. By connecting existing assets, equipment owners can enable predictive maintenance and new services to generate enhanced value to their customers and improved efficiency for their operations. What’s particularly nice about this “bolt-on” approach is that the modem itself is relatively affordable and can be easily replaced in the future.
Design for the Future
For new equipment where there is an opportunity to design connectivity in from the start, developers should think carefully about how long the asset will be expected to operate in the field versus how quickly the embedded connectivity protocols are likely to change.
Some communications technologies change faster than others. Wired solutions tend to maintain a longer lifetime than their wireless counterparts, as evidenced by that 100-year-old POTS line that may still be running into your mother’s house. Compare that to 4G-LTE, which was introduced in 2008 and has already undergone six releases since.
For the Internet of Things, ubiquity, application suitability and ease of deployment are also important factors. Clearly, wires cannot reach every asset we may wish to monitor, while certain wireless options may be easy to deploy, but not able to provide the bandwidth or reliability of wired communications.
As the developer of a new product, you have the luxury to specify how your device will communicate and to fine-tune that connectivity not only to meet the needs of today’s application, but also to help mitigate the potential disruption future technological advancements cause.
We are witnessing the rollout of new fiber optic networks capable of Gigabit Ethernet speeds, which will ultimately form the backbone of the 5G cellular networks. It is the first such major wired infrastructure outlay since the advent of cable in the 1970s and is designed to outlast copper-based wiring. If your asset is fixed, it may be worthwhile to consider plugging in.
If, however, your asset requires mobility, there are a variety of wireless options. There is the cellular network, which is inherently driven by short life-cycle, large bandwidth usage and likely to change frequently; local-area options like WiFi which are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, but often have security barriers for roaming applications, and a variety of new low-power, wide-area wireless protocols which have been designed with the IoT in mind and whose proponents broadly proclaim will not undergo significant changes for extended periods. Which of these may be suitable to your application depends upon its requirements and should be carefully vetted for performance, range, link budget and power management before you commit.
Another way to “future-proof” your design for new products is to select a component provider that offers footprint compatibility across a range of communications protocols (Figure 2). Such compatibility allows you to layout your board just once to accommodate evolving technologies by enabling an easy replacement of one technology for another. You also preserve the majority of your device design.
Prepare to Upgrade
We may be reaching the limits of physics when it comes to connectivity hardware. 2016 could well go down in history as marking the end of Moore’s law. But progress continues in software. Products in the field can be readily improved upon through over-the-air updates for many years to come. That is, if ongoing software upgradability is taken into account during the initial design phase.
The savvy engineer designs in the appropriate two-way communications, embedded processing and memory to ensure improving upon deployed assets over time.
When designing a connected device, evaluate and incorporate device management, connectivity management and application management software to prolong the viable lifecycle of any assets you or your customers deploy (Figure 3).
Though the number of organizations claiming to have silver bullet solutions for the IoT is growing (perhaps even faster than IoT applications themselves), it is wise to choose suppliers with a track record of success and which offer a substantive variety of solutions to address current communications challenges and a roadmap to address future needs.
The Internet of Things, as stated at the onset of this article, is nothing new—and it pays to work with organizations that have been there from the beginning.
Alex Romero is a Strategic business professional with more than 10 years of experience delivering profitable results. He is passionate about business management, people, industrial engineering and the integration of systems thinking into practices that drive growth. He has strong analytical skills and enjoys building mutually inclusive relationships that foster collaboration. Romero is currently a Product Manager, managing cellular modems and routers at MultiTech. He holds a BS in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico and an MBA from the University of Saint Thomas.