The Internet of Things
The fourth industrial revolution, The Internet of Things, is well underway. Some are calling it Manufacturing 4.0, although I think this is a limited view. Let’s briefly recap the major industrial milestones. Many consider the steam engine to be the first industrial revolution. The second industrial revolution started with the conveyor belt. The third industrial revolution, brought on by computers and the Internet, fundamentally changed how we communicate and interact and the speed at which we communicate and interact. While the fourth industrial revolution, “The Internet of Things,” is now well underway, this technology is still in the early stages with many more advancements and changes yet to come.
So, what exactly does The Internet of Things mean? It’s the ability to access identification information on the internet by electronically scanning a thing or object, implanted with a microchip or etched with a code containing information. The Internet of Things may have started out in the manufacturing industry but the technology enabling things to host information has traveled far beyond the first wave of things. Yet, even with all the current applications using embedded information today, this technology has only touched the surface.
I still remember my father, an electrical engineer, coming home very excited from work one day back in 1971. In a research and development environment, he was working on emerging, cutting-edge electronics, technology and devices. My father was excited about a new innovation called the microprocessor. At their client’s request, Intel designed a set of four microchips, one of them being the central processing (CPU) chip or the 4004. Intel then purchased the rights to the 4004 from their client in 1971. My dad proceeded to tell the story at dinner table about this fabulous device packed with thousands of transistors onto a little piece of silicon smaller than the fingernail on my pinky. This programmable device is just about capable of anything and limited only by the imagination of the product designer. One day, my dad predicted, these devices would be so inexpensive, and so universal, they would be in just about everything imaginable, from doorknobs to key chains. At the time, I was 13 years old and getting interested in things technical and mechanical, so this really fired up my imagination. At the same time, I thought it was just about the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. After all, why on earth would anybody want to put a microchip into a doorknob, or why would I want to have a microchip in my keychain? The infant microprocessor had just been born, and I was dreaming of supercomputers and not smart key chains. Even my vivid childhood imagination was not nearly vivid enough to imagine the wild proliferation of devices awaiting us in the decades ahead.
Fast-forward 40 years. We now have microchips in our doorknobs, key chains, telephones, wristwatches and even our credit cards. The list is endless. Today, we can scarcely imagine life without all of these electronically-enabled daily devices.
Encoding information within a device greatly enhances the utility of everyday common devices and tools, such as the doorknob, key chain and credit card. Our ability to manipulate and respond to this information adds value. For example, the microchip in car keys increases security and makes it much more difficult to steal a car. Microchips in doorknobs, while not commonplace in our homes, are quite commonplace in the hotel industry and commercial buildings. Once again, the information improves security and control for enabling active management.
Indeed, the first round of innovation in The Internet of Things has been the embedding of microchips and critical information into devices to enhance our security. When the potential for loss is very high, endowing these things with information dramatically increases security at an extraordinarily low cost. The essential concept behind The Internet of Things is information, embedded in a thing, enables interaction greatly increasing the utility or value of that thing. The embedded information snippet gives us the capability to access big and vital information about the thing via an internet database or website!
The Thing and Its Information
Technology now allows us to embed things with identification information, so the thing and its information, can always travel together as one. Why is this such an important concept?
Consider a thing, an object, an article, a piece of material, which has no information attached; no packing slip, no label, no tag or guide. For example, let’s say we have a 20-foot long piece of 1-inch diameter stainless steel bar stock. We can easily tell the bar is stainless steel by the appearance and the weight. Nonmagnetic bars are 300 series and magnetic bars are 400 series. In our scenario, let’s say the piece of bar stock arrives at the receiving dock without its certification sheet attached and ends up mixed in with a bunch of other 1-inch diameter stainless steel bar stock. All the bars look alike, they all weigh the same, and they are all equally nonmagnetic or magnetic. So, how do we determine which type of stainless steel bar stock, out of the several hundred different types, it actually is? The truth is, we don’t know, and we can’t know. Once the piece of bar stock and its information separated from each other, the material became worthless to us. Now, the stainless steel bar stock is still stainless steel bar stock; it’s good stuff but we can’t use it. We no longer have the vital information which enables us to identify the material; information we need to ensure proper and safe use. Conceivably we could run a chemical assay on the material to determine its composition. But let’s say the piece of bar stock is worth $50, and the test to perform a chemical assay might cost $500. Clearly, nobody is going to spend $500 to test a piece of material only worth around $50. So, the piece of material, now separated from its information, has become worthless. We’re not going to spend any more time or money on it, so we’re going to discard the worthless material. If we wanted to be benevolent, we may donate the material to a local high school metal shop. Maybe they can put the material to good use, but for our manufacturing purposes, the bar has become useless, and thus worthless.
So, what can we do? By etching a barcode onto the surface, we can encode information directly onto the bar stock so it cannot be separated from its information. There are a number of different methods to accomplish this step. Laser engraving would work well. A hard tool controlled by a computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine can etch on or tap a 2D data matrix into the surface. These types of codes are not only extremely robust and resistant to damage but are also easily scanned with a barcode scanner. When we scan the minimal amount of information encoded on the material, we then match it up with information in another database via the internet. The material identity, source and certifications are all quickly determined from the stored documents.
Household gadgets or devices are another great example of The Internet of Things. How many times have we thrown away a programmable household device because we could not find the instruction manual to determine how to use it, how to reprogram it or how to make it work? This is another situation where the article or thing, without the information, suddenly becomes worthless. On the other hand, if we have the TV remote control but only the programming guide is lost, we might still be able to recover. If the TV remote control has the model number permanently encoded or molded into the surface, and the company is still in business, we can go to the Internet, type in the model number and readily find the instruction manual PDF file for that particular device. The thing, which in our minds was becoming more worthless by the minute, is now salvageable and put to good use once again. Because we were able to reunite the thing with vital operating information, the thing is still useful.
The Internet of Things has now extended into domains we might never have imagined 40 years ago. For example, my pug Allie has a tiny little microchip embedded under the skin in the scruff of her neck. Why is this important? Well, around the house, Allie is not in her collar or harness. If Allie bolts out the door when I happen to be struggling with the groceries, doesn’t come back in and ends up lost, she’s still traveling with her information. Because of the microchip, Allie and her vital information always ride together. Allie is a loved member of the family and we don’t consider her a “thing.” The microchip is, however, vital for her security and well-being. Her safety depends on her never separating from her information. Should she ever get lost or separated from her loving owners, the microchip greatly increases the chances she’s recovered and reclaimed. Now, this might sound positively Orwellian but I shudder to think about human beings having these kinds of microchips embedded in the scruffs of their necks. That day has already arrived for Alzheimer patients and students with location tracking ID cards.
The Value of Embedding Information
Let’s return to non-living, material things. Embedding information into material things or objects is extremely useful. Imagine a manufacturing plant where the manufacturing system positively identifies every part by scanning the embedded identification information before incorporating it into the assembly. In some industries, this already exists. For instance, batches of gunpowder and explosives are commonly marked with tracers to positively identify the manufacturing facility and batch and lot numbers. This creates added value, in the event the explosives are ever misused. The markers can be used to trace the material back through the supply chain and identify every owner in the chain of custody.
The industrial revolution 4.0 is well underway. The Internet of Things is already here and is actively practiced in critical applications. At the same time, we are at the dawn of a new revolution. As we move forward, even things worth only pennies will have embedded information, allowing us to transport and use the material more efficiently. An added bonus will be avoiding mistakes and improving the service level associated with each part, device or component. Pay attention. There is so much more to come, it’s inconceivable. The Internet of Things is bringing many new products and services our way!
Andy Pattantyus, CPIM is president of Strategic Modularity, Inc., a systems engineering consulting firm that works with clients on process oriented Lean Transformation projects, including initiatives to improve administrative workflows. Andy is also an active member of APICS-SFV and The ACA Group. If you would like to get in touch with Strategic Modularity, Inc., contact Andy here.
Rooney, B. (2013, July 3). Internet of Things Poses Big Questions. The Wall Street Journal, us ed. Retrieved from: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323899704578583372300514886.html
Loffler, M., Tschiesner, A. (2013, June). The Internet of Things and the Future of Manufacturing. McKinsey&Company. Retrieved from: http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/business_technology/the_internet_of_things_and_the_future_of_manufacturing
Diginfonews. (2013, July 11). Stealth Barcodes for Manufacturing Tracking. IMPO. Retrieved from: http://www.impomag.com/videos/2013/07/stealth-barcodes-manufacturing-tracking