Intro to IoT
You may be familiar with the phrase “Internet of Things.” If you are, it’s possible you heard it in reference to all the internet-connected hardware found in many homes (beyond common wireless devices such as phones and laptops). Internet-connected voice assistants, security cameras, even kitchen appliances are among popular IoT devices today. The value proposition generally centers around advanced functionalities unlocked by having a cloud-based connection: scheduling, “if then, then that” activations, diagnostics and information, smartphone control and integrations, for example.
Similar potential exists within the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT. While newer than the wireless home landscape, IIoT promises many of the same benefits: advanced functionality, streamlined efficiency, better security, energy management, etc. But how does this differ from a building management or automation system? Similarly to traditional home automation systems industrial building automation comes with big price tags and limited flexibility once installed. IIoT has the potential to make smarter technology available to small and medium businesses unable or unwilling to pay for building management systems.
What’s driving adoption of IIoT now? For starters, the cost and complexity of both the hardware and software needed to enable connected devices has declined precipitously over the last decade. Sensors, wireless radios and cloud computing are more affordable than ever, and the reliability has increased at the same time. Previously, wired communication protocols were the only way to consistently deliver the commands and logic necessary for machines to operate “intelligently.”
With the original hub and spoke model, your system also needed a brain: something to command all of the end points on what they should do. Presently, the computing power of onboard microprocessors means each device can be smart on its own. Therefore, if you simply wanted your locks to activate at the end of the work day, you no longer need to rely on an expensive, central automation system to execute a command.
For all of the hypotheticals and techno-dreams, smart building and energy management can often be as simple as occupancy sensor-controlled lighting. Scheduling HVAC systems to turn off an hour or two before the final shift ends is a simple way to cut costs without impacting comfort. Scheduling ventilation fans to run based on outside temperatures can optimize the air exchange.
Many decisions can be made at the individual product level, so you can see why building certain product types with onboard intelligence is an economical alternative to a mainframe.
The new wave of IIoT technologies is not without consideration, of course. Here are some key things to evaluate when selecting products:
First, ensure your business is already operating with best practices in terms of wireless networks. If you’re planning to put a device on a wireless network that’s already vulnerable, you may be risking loss of control of critical pieces of your operation. If your devices are on or creating their own networks, have your IT department or an independent consultant recommend precautionary measures you can take. For example, setting up two-factor authentication can make it much more difficult for unwelcomed users to gain access to the devices.
Although part of the promise of IIoT is that individual machines and equipment can now operate intelligently without a building management system, you may want some of your smart products communicating. For example, your smoke detectors could activate your ventilation system and unlock doors in the event of a fire. Or your security system could trigger smart lights to flash in the event of a threat. There are many ways to intelligently pair smart devices, but purchasing from different vendors can make this more difficult. That said, some of these more sophisticated features support what are called edge cases, and most of your automation needs can be met without interoperability.
Downtime is the enemy in any manufacturing, distribution or productivity-driven business. Make sure the products have a good reputation, and are backed by industry-standard warranties. Similar to what has happened with automobiles, the more technology you pack into it, the more potential maintenance needs you may have. Always do your homework on the manufacturer!
The Bottom Line
IIoT is the great equalizer for small and medium-sized businesses not in the market for a six-figure building management system. It’s an excellent time to make your buildings smarter, as greater productivity and lower operating costs can be achieved quite easily. Start with your biggest needs or costs, and keep in mind that you can add more pieces to your smart building in the future as budgets or needs grow.