Towards the end of 2017, a heavy iron ore train pulled out of the town of Tom Price in Western Australia’s Pilbara mining region and drove 100 kilometres down the track to the settlement of Paraburdoo.
The journey along the dusty desert railway was mostly uneventful and unremarkable, except for one key thing: there was no human being on board. Instead, the train operated by mining company Rio Tinto relied on an array of sensors communicating with computer processors and a remote command centre to guide it precisely down the tracks. The successful trial was expected to open the way for the world’s first fully autonomous heavy-haul long-distance railway by the end of 2018, and it demonstrates the remarkable potential of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – the network of connected machines that is transforming the way industry works.
“If you mentioned the Industrial Internet of Things a couple of years ago, many people would have dismissed it as a fad,” says Brian Buntz, content director with the IOT Institute, the leading Internet of Things news site and community. “But today we’re seeing a major investment in the area across the planet. Manufacturers in China are trying to maintain their competitive edge, the US is trying to bring back manufacturing from China, and across Europe there’s government backing of smart factories.”
If you step into a factory 15 years from now, you might not even recognize what you’re seeing.
Erik Walenza, CEO, IoT ONE
While definitions vary, the Industrial Internet of Things is typically viewed as part of Industry 4.0, the fourth wave of industrialization to sweep the world since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. While the second wave centred on production lines and globalization and the third one on the Internet and robots, the fourth, IIoT, centres on the use of big data, connected sensors, autonomous machines and artificial intelligence. It involves taking the Internet of Things – the ecosystem of connected devices that powers such things as your Google home assistants or Fitbit fitness trackers – and applying this in an industrial context.
By fitting sensors to industrial components, introducing connectivity to systems, harvesting data and using sophisticated computer processing, companies hope to reduce reliance on menial human labour and boost productivity and efficiency. The full potential of the IIoT is still being explored, but a 2017 report by computer company IBM identified some of the most immediate benefits to industry: predictive maintenance, smart metering, asset tracking, connected vehicles and enhanced fleet management.
Analytics company Industry ARC expects the global value of the IIoT market to reach more than 105 billion euros by 2021, while consulting firm Accenture’s Winning with the Industrial Internet of Things report estimates the technology could add 12 trillion euros to the global economy by 2030.
It’s still relatively early days for the IIoT, but Buntz says there are plenty of examples of companies using the technology in transformational ways.