Industry 4.0 – Everything is Digitising, Bit Byte Bit


Some technological barriers still need to be crossed and desired outcomes still need to be proven, says Vinit Singh.

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I was at the DistribuTech conference last month – my first time – and got a firsthand view of Industry 4.0. I saw what GE’s Jeff Immelt meant when he said that “every industrial company may have gone to sleep an industrial company but will need to get up as a software and analytics company”.


You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that you had stumbled into a software and sensors conference. Almost every keynote or conference talk included the words, “connectivity, IoT, sensors”. (All except an entertaining keynote by Michael Webber, who talked about Water and humanity's top 10 challenges).


Every major exhibitor had a software and networking strategy for their sensors, i.e., Industrial IoT. They showcased boxes for edge computing and edge-to-cloud and edge-to-enterprise secure connectivity with every connectivity mode possible; and software platforms for seamless integration and API development. I heard a lot of AI and Machine Learning as well, although mostly at a conceptual level.


Digital Twin

GE has developed a concept called the digital twin, which is essentially a real-time sensing, simulating, computing and analysing digital copy of deployed assets.


This is IoT on steroids.


In the future, a software technician sitting in Austin, TX could monitor real-time diagnostics of a turbine (the deployed asset) in Iowa, and can order parts or a new service before any failure mechanism sets in. Extending this futurism; this technician, upon detecting a hardware fault, commissions an onsite robot to relocate to the fault location and fix it while she watches it on a live video feed. Further, if necessary, she fixes it with her “own hands” by mapping her fingers onto the robot’s. In order to get a real feel of the situation, she has special gloves that provide haptic feedback and uses VR goggles to immerse herself in the true environment. 


Sensors, Data, Networking

There were the other known concepts on smart grid, smart buildings, smart lighting; all of them about how you can obtain bits (data) from the atoms (the sensors) and eventually use newly generated bits to ensure the smooth flow of electrons (power) while ensuring that spurious bits from unknown sources don’t interfere with your bits, atoms and electrons.


Obviously, these are economies of massive scale, and for several reasons the deployments are going to be the preserve of large companies. Even the customers are going to be mostly large entities, for example utilities. That said, tremendous software and hardware opportunities exist for smaller vendors in the Industrial IoT food chain: Sense @ node -> compute/analyse @ node -> transmit to edge -> assimilate, compute/analyse more; store -> transmit back to node and/or transmit to cloud -> compute and analyse in cloud. Throw in the gobs of data generated and you have made a case of data science, AI and machine learning.


Wireless power play

I can't not write about this.


How do you power the millions of sensors and thousands of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)/robots? Running wires can be complex and nearly impossible in some cases. Therefore, power will be a mix of wired, wireless (RF, magnetic induction, capacitive, other), and battery-driven. For example, the high-power robots and AGVs are higher energy devices and will be recharged either via wired connections, or magnetic induction if induction can justify the costs (e.g., long-term energy), for the benefit (e.g., safety, convenience, aesthetics). Low power remote sensors will be powered either by batteries that last for a few years, energy harvesting or RF power.


Caveats & Conclusion

The industry is still poking at the IoT beast.


While I didn’t meet any naysayers at the conference, there was a wide range of “when”. The Industrial IoT industry is at a point where the wrist wearable industry was a year ago and where the VR/AR industry is at currently. There are a lot of cool sensors and technologies that can provide us with good information and stellar analytics and visualisation, but the "so-what" of it is still being answered. Some technological barriers still need to be crossed and desired outcomes still need to be proven.


All said, infrastructural changes always are slow moving and the question of "if" is no longer being asked. 


For better or worse, most massive deployments are not decided by the average consumer (but often paid for by them). Instead the decision is made by utility companies, several of whom have already embarked upon IoT-isation of their grid (see case studies1) and even opening up grid data to external agencies (e.g., NYPA) for new applications.


Did you know?

Thanks to Netflix, the UK national grid is less reliant on France for power.


Before Netflix, the UK grid would experience a 3 GW power surge for 3-5 minutes after a popular TV show ended. This was due to 1.75 million households powering up their kettles at roughly the same time. To handle this surge, UK would "borrow” power from France. With Netflix and DVR schemes, the time at which the kettles are switched on has skewed, thereby ending the power surges. Merci mais, non merci.


“Technology is not an exogenous force over which we have no control. We are not constrained by a binary choice between “accept and live with it” and “reject and live without it”. Instead, take dramatic technological change as an invitation to reflect about who we are and how we see the world. The more we think about how to harness the technology revolution, the more we will examine ourselves and the underlying social models that these technologies embody and enable, and the more we will have an opportunity to shape the revolution in a manner that improves the state of the world.”


“Businesses, industries and corporations will face continuous Darwinian pressures and as such, the philosophy of “always in beta” (always evolving) will become more prevalent. This suggests that the global number of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs (enterprising company managers) will increase. Small and medium-sized enterprises will have the advantages of speed and the agility needed to deal with disruption and innovation.”


“Professional activities are dissected into precise assignments and discrete projects and then thrown into a virtual cloud of aspiring workers located anywhere in the world.”

- Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution




Dr Vinit Singh

Dr Vinit Singh is the founder of SquareTrail (based in Austin), a technology strategy & engineering firm focused on Wireless Connectivity, IoT and Wireless Power. Prior to this, Vinit was the Chief Technology Officer at NuCurrent, a leading wireless power solutions company based out of Chicago. A thought leader in wireless technologies and IoT, Vinit has given several invited presentations, including as the keynote, at academic and industry conferences organised by IEEE, Battery Power, Ansys, etc. He has also authored numerous articles in academic and digital industry publications. Vinit has also received several industry recognitions, including twice being name as a “Technologist of the Year” finalist by ITA CityLIGHTS Awards (2015, 2016), winner of the Flexi Product Innovation Award (2017) and the R&D100 Award (2009). Vinit received his BTech from Indian Institute of Technology and PhD from North Carolina State University.