Internet of Things – making every second count

Paul Boughton

Jonathan Wilkins ponders the Internet of Things concept and what effect it could have on automation processes, such as the repair and replacement of industrial components.

Did you know that the world's population spends a total of 500,000 hours a day typing Internet security codes (CAPTCHAs)? That's a lot of time dedicated to something that, while useful for internet security, has no value whatsoever to the individual.

If it were possible to eliminate at least some similar procedures and protocols from daily life, we would all have significantly more time for pleasurable activities. We are not advocating a descent into hedonism; we're just saying time could sometimes be spent better.

Others before us have had similar things in mind. Take for example, Kevin Ashton, who originated the Internet of Things (IoT) concept. The phrase initially referred to a network of uniquely identifiable physical objects and their virtual representations.

In other words, IoT would mean that many physical objects would have an intelligent interface that allows it to communicate with other objects, users and environments.

The concept has captured the attention of individuals, organisations and governments around the world, some of which have offered their own versions of the IoT. The European Commission’s CORDIS initiative, many of SAP's products and the European Technology Platform’s EPOSS can all be rooted to the initial IoT concept.

Since everyone is talking about it, we have also asked ourselves what the impact of this technology will be on automation. For one thing, it would make process management much easier. If equipment could estimate and express when it needed repairing or replacing, the life of plant engineers would be much easier.

For European automation, the IoT could have an extremely beneficial impact. Firstly, it would make our warehouse facilities even leaner. Tagging, tracking and counting automation parts would be easy as pie. Or better yet, pie could be eaten while performing these jobs.

All jokes aside, an IoT regulated warehouse would significantly reduce waste, loss and cost. An inventory of available parts could be created automatically. It would also be able to constantly update itself without staff involvement. Evaluating and purchasing parts would also be easier; because the parts themselves could communicate the state they’re in.

If the IoT becomes a fully fledged reality, system compatibility would no longer be an issue. Automation parts would be able to recognise whether they are reconcilable with equipment or overall systems without being shipped to the customer. They would also be able to communicate their incompatibility or even suggest appropriate alternatives.

Finally, tracking automation parts in an IoT universe would be a breeze. Each one would be equipped with a GPS or RFID sensor which allows it to provide constant updates of its whereabouts.

The IoT sounds like a remarkably efficient world where the human element would become a control function. This is one of the major criticisms the IoT has faced since it was first theorised: it might make humans redundant. European Automation strongly disagrees. Why? We know that no objects, no matter how smart or connected, could ever replace our amazing sales and fulfilment team.
There's still a long way to go before the IoT becomes a plausible solution for European Automation. In a way, we are following the CAPTCHA model, which was replaced with reCAPTCHAs in 2009, introducing a new generation of security codes. Now, every time you type in a reCAPTCHA you are actually helping Google create the largest digital library in the history of mankind.

Similarly, European automation is trying every day to simplify complex processes and ensure a smoother customer experience. And so far, we've been doing a pretty good job, if we do say so ourselves.

Jonathan Wilkins is with European Automation, Stafford, UK. European Automation: European Automation stocks and sells new, used, refurbished and obsolete industrial automation spares.

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