The internet of tomorrow has arrived, and it’s about much more than Facebook, Netflix, Twitter and email, the services we use to connect with one another.Companies jostle for place in ‘Internet of Things’.
This new internet already has its own acronym, IoT, for “Internet of Things”.
And while many of its architects are well-known Silicon Valley companies, longtime Milwaukee industrial stalwart Rockwell Automation Inc has positioned itself at the heart of the phenomenon, which some consider the next industrial revolution.
“We’re past the inflection point, where there are now more things connected to the internet than people,” Rockwell Chief Executive Keith Nosbusch said in a keynote speech in Barcelona in late October at the first Internet of Things World Forum.
The Internet of Things will be defined by the exponential growth of web-enabled “things” that measure, monitor and control the physical world, talking with each other more than they talk with humans. Among the many examples: thermostats, car keys, public toilets, lake levels, parking meters and parking spaces, refrigerators and televisions, subways and airports, automated teller machines, soil conditions for crops, and garbage cans that can say when they’re full.
The implementation of what Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers calls the “fourth wave of the internet” is underway.
Since last August, for example, Starbucks has installed internet links on 500 specialty coffee brewing machines around the country, allowing its “coffee expertise team” in its Seattle headquarters to track which roasts are most popular. The sensors also send predictive maintenance reports if any parts are wearing out, “to make sure they perform optimally,” said a Starbucks spokeswoman. Starbucks is about to expand the number to 1000.
Also, Japanese health authorities have installed web-enabled sensors in some toilets to monitor bio-genetic health issues, according to Cisco. And the company says sensors on some automated teller machines already can recognise gunshots or human distress signals; Cisco experts foresee a time when the ATM will be able to notify police and possibly link to traffic monitors that can shut down traffic in the vicinity, if needed.
“We are at the very, very beginning of a super-interconnected world,” said Steve Steinhilber, a senior Cisco executive who works on smart ecosystems.
Cisco, the world’s biggest maker of internet equipment, estimates that sensors currently are installed on fewer than 1 percent of the non-human devices that have the potential to transmit data from an IP (internet protocol) address. But that’s rapidly changing. By 2020, when the world population will hit 7.7 billion, Cisco expects 50 billion devices to be interconnected.
That will create a profusion of data unlike ever before. And those devices will be communicating at least as much with each other as with humans. “Increasingly, everything will be connected to everything,” said Rob Soderbery, a senior Cisco strategist for IoT networks.
Rockwell, known for 110 years for its made-in-Milwaukee factory controls, now is morphing into a web pioneer on an industrial scale, supplying routers, switches and other types of hardware that make up the backbone of the internet.
Rockwell’s engineers routinely take entire factories online, installing internet-linked sensors across the factory floor to synchronise production and link machines to smart electricity grids that help reduce energy costs and to smartphones that can monitor processes and product lines remotely.
The company also meshes these “smart” factories, oil refineries, food processors and water treatment plants with networks of third-party suppliers and customers, so parts can be ordered and products delivered automatically and more efficiently than ever.
As microchip tags become smaller and cheaper - they can be ingested to track human biometrics - the super-networked world will spawn raw data too quickly and too prodigiously for human consumption, billowing terabytes by the nanosecond.
And that’s expected to usher in new opportunities and business models, posits Sujeet Chand, chief technology officer at Rockwell.
That starts with a new form of analytics to analyse a massive cloud of dynamic, ever-changing information, Chand said. Experts theorise about the need for “reality search engines,” which will create holographic data maps and offer predictive, diagnostic and prescriptive guidance - not just looking for a job, but watching employment sectors on the verge of creating or shedding employment; planning a trip for maximum convenience; collecting evidence to prosecute crimes.
“It’s the marriage of minds and machines,” said Marco Annunziata, chief economist at General Electric. “This is a transformation as powerful as the industrial revolution … ” he said in a presentation broadcast online as part of the TED Talk lecture series.
The IoT will take much of the guesswork out of running an organisation, futurists predict. Diagnostic capabilities will mean intelligent machines are fixed in advance: “There will be no more power outages, no more flight delays,” Annunziata predicted.
Some liken this vision of a networked future to the original Star Trek TV series, on which the crew of the Starship Enterprise used smartphone-sized “tricorders” to scan and analyse unfamiliar creatures and surroundings.
“Captain Kirk and the lads could walk up to anything and anybody, point the tricorder, and they’d learn all about it: the physical and chemical composition of what was in front of them. Walk up to the person - their state of health, were they hostile?” said John Barrett, head of the Smart Systems Integration Research Group at the Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland. “With the Internet of Things, your smartphone will become a tricorder. Walk up to this piano: Who was playing it over recent years? What music was played on it?”
That, of course, naturally leads to concerns about the ability of the IoT to be used for Big Brother-like intrusions on privacy.
“Privacy as a concept under the Internet of Things may become meaningless,” Barrett said in a TED Talk. “Whatever way we think it will turn out, get used to it. Because it’s already happening.”
According to Cisco’s Chambers, the first wave of the internet was email and basic websites. The second was e-commerce. The third, which is the current state, is defined by the cloud, social media and video. Version 4.0 is the now-developing Internet of Things.
Cisco predicts the IoT has the potential to create or unlock a total of US$14.4 trillion in new economic output by 2020. Cisco says the figure is for the private sector alone and has nothing to do with the delivery of any government services. “These are fairly conservative projections, we think,” said Cisco’s Steinhilber.
Cisco, Rockwell and technology research firm Gartner concur that manufacturing will constitute the single biggest share of those new Web-generated trillions - 27 per cent by Cisco’s reckoning.
Manufacturing “is by far the biggest opportunity across the entire Internet of Things landscape,” Nosbusch said in an email to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Within the next two years, half of manufacturers will migrate their infrastructure to the cloud.”
Nosbusch was appointed chief executive of Rockwell in 2004. An electrical engineer by training, Nosbusch decided early on to use standard Internet protocols for all of Rockwell’s software and systems. The “connected enterprise” should be as compatible with the rest of the online world as possible, Nosbusch contends, even while some of his rivals in the automation industry went the other direction and developed “closed” or proprietary networks.
Rockwell and Cisco began a formal collaboration in 2007 that has led to the co-development of several products, including a line of Stratix routers and switches, as well as other products in the pipeline, Chand said. Unlike most Internet hardware, Stratix routers are meant to withstand extremes of heat and cold, as well as moisture, vibration and other contingencies of industrial environments, Chand said.
And the user-friendly Stratix systems are configured for factory workers - people for whom internet protocols are often a foreign language, Chand said.
Cisco and Rockwell have developed subcommittees with dedicated staff to manage the alliance and new product development. Chambers and Nosbusch have developed a personal rapport, according to accounts from both companies. They talk every quarter - strategizing with their respective teams about where technology is leading the economy - using Cisco’s lifelike TelePresence conferencing system, which allows two people in different states or continents to make eye contact as if they’re in the same room.
“They speak the same language,” Chand said.
The three-day Internet of Things Forum in Barcelona, initiated by Cisco, attracted 800 people including executives from AT&T Labs, Qualcomm, Airbus Industrie of Europe, Toshiba and the Tata Group of India co-sponsors included IBM, Oracle, Intel, Siemens AG and SAP AG.
Johnson Controls, the Fortune 100 energy-storage and building-controls company based in the Milwaukee area, was on the conference steering committee. Johnson Controls engineers energy-efficient “smart buildings” that can be monitored from anywhere in the world.
Rockwell’s Nosbusch used his keynote speech on Day One of the Barcelona forum to peer into the future of globalisation and web-enabled manufacturing.
He cited predictions that more people will exit poverty in the next decade than have in the entirety of human history, with more than 70 million people on the planet crossing into the middle class even as the global population grows. Demand for manufactured products will rise along with global consumer spending. Competition will increase for infrastructure, energy, fresh water, steel and other raw materials. And any intelligent management of the economy will require “predictive model-based control,” Nosbusch said.
Even without futurists, the evangelists of the new Internet have their answer to a question that dogs the industrial Midwest: Is there still such a thing as a surefire job in manufacturing - one with family-supporting pay, like in the old days?
The answer is yes, but the ideal job candidate will be a programmer familiar with Internet standards.
“The speed of change,” Chambers told the Forum, “will spare no one.”