Interconnected Internet of Things icons over a city.
Image: metamorworks/Adobe Stock

The history of the industrial internet of things draws on three distinct technology development stories: network connectivity, processing and storage capacity, and sensors and actuators. If you know the development timeline of each of these core technologies, you’ll also have an accurate understanding of the capabilities of connected devices used in an industrial setting in the corresponding era.

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IIoT network connectivity

That second “I” in the acronym stands for the internet, and it indicates the importance of networks in IIoT. Until the late 1990s and early 2000s, the standard state of computers and computing devices was to be disconnected from the internet: You took special steps to go online and connect. That’s nearly the opposite of life in an organization in 2022, when you often have to take special steps to disconnect.

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Most early networking technologies were wired: Connection required cables that physically linked your device to the network. Network bandwidth — the amount of data that can be conveyed in a period of time — for 10BASE-T Ethernet connections, one of the most widely used standards established in the late 1980s and early 1990s, allowed for as much as 10 Megabits of data per second. In contemporary times, wired networks support connections of 1,000 Megabits of data per second (1000BASE-T or 1 Gigabit) or even 10 Gigabits of data per second (10GBASE-T) for modern Ethernet connections.

Wireless and cellular networking, which eliminated the need for a cable to each device, was a significant shift for IIoT. Standardized in 1999, 802.11b was one of the first standards supported in products from many manufacturers and was a predecessor to the Wi-Fi 6E standard established in 2020. Modern Wi-Fi devices not only offer speeds anywhere from 50 to 800 times as fast as earlier equipment, but the devices may also perform reliably in much more dense radio environments than their predecessors.

Cellular networks, which people rely on for smartphone coverage around the globe, have engineered similar improvements in speed, capacity and power efficiency from early 2G networks that supported roughly 0.1 Megabit per second to contemporary 5G networks that offer connections of 200 Megabits per second or more.

IIoT is also the story of technologies that make different combinations of trade-offs on range, power usage and speeds. Radio frequency identification with ranges up to 300 feet or so and near-field communication technologies which require close contact are both useful in IIoT settings, with RFID often used for asset tracking and NFC used for access control, payments or data exchange.

Other technologies, such as the Long Range Wide Area Network, a type of low power, wide area networking, or Narrowband IoT, a variant of 4G for IoT, where not very high speeds are needed, solve specific problems. Focused groups, such as the Wireless Smart Ubiquitous Networks Alliance, seek to solve specific problems related to smart city or utility applications of IoT.

IIoT storage and processing capacity

Significant improvements in processing power, when paired with increased storage capacities available at steadily decreasing costs, also played an essential role in IIoT history.

Increases in computing processing power are most often encapsulated in the so-called Moore’s Law, which refers to an observation made by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles roughly every two years, while the cost over the same time is cut in half.

Such a rapid rate of improvement in computing capacity means that not only have companies been able to make dramatic improvements in overall processing power of devices in the roughly 40 years of the modern computer revolution since the 1980s, but also that highly capable processors may be made in very small sizes.

Importantly for IIoT purposes, vendors can make hardened chips that withstand extreme environments such as high/low temperatures, water exposure or immersion and physical impacts from drops.

A full history of data storage would cover magnetic tape, punch cards and magnetic discs, but a focus on IIoT narrows the focus to modern hard drives, flash memory and solid state disks. Modern derivatives of these three technologies make it possible to store several terabytes of data in form factors that range from roughly the size of a dime to a slim deck of cards — all at costs of less than $150 per terabyte or so.

IIoT sensors and actuators

The third stream of technologies that tell the story of IIoT are sensors and actuators. Sensors detect things, such as temperature, light, location, touch, motion or sound. Actuators move or control things. An actuator might trigger the opening or closing of a door’s lock, the tightening or loosening of a robotic arm, the movement of a machine part, or the activation of a heating or cooling system.

To understand how sensors have improved over the last few decades, consider digital camera technology. In 1994, the Apple QuickTake digital camera launched, with a maximum resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, slightly more than 307 thousand pixels. In 2022, the iPhone 14 Pro camera can capture images of 8,064 x 6,048 pixels, or more than 48 million pixels — a total of around 158 times as many pixels. The simple pixel count comparison doesn’t even address changes in light or color sensitivity, speed, use of multiple camera sensors or advances in computational photography.

A robot arm that can grasp and manipulate a wide range of objects — such as a piece of paper, grape, wine glass or brick — encapsulates many of the advancements in actuators. Modern systems have the ability to not only sense these distinct objects, but also to adjust pressure appropriately: Grasp a grape or glass with the same strength grip as a brick and you’ll make a mess. The ability to use many sensors simultaneously also expands the capabilities of IIoT systems.

Challenges and opportunities in IIoT

Two of the most significant contemporary challenges in the field of IIoT, security and interoperability, emerge as a result of the sequences of technology developments covered above. In earlier times, fewer people and items were connected to the internet, so security was less of a concern. Similarly, makers of IIoT devices and systems had little financial incentive to make their systems broadly compatible with competitors’ products: Why make it easy to switch? Fortunately, collective customer concerns have evoked an increased emphasis on both security and interoperability.

What’s your perspective on the IIoT?

Researchers continue to seek solutions to many of the fundamental security, interoperability and other challenges in the IoT and IIoT fields. What sorts of IoT and IIoT systems have you deployed? How have these systems changed how you work? Beyond the technologies mentioned above, what other developments do you think have significantly advanced the IIoT? Mention or message me on Twitter (@awolber) to let me know what other interesting IIoT changes merit attention.

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