3 IT infrastructure enablers for Industry 4.0

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Each new industrial revolution has relied, or even been the result of, the availability of underpinning technology enablers. For the first industrial revolution in the eighteenth century it was water power and steam power that drove the new wave of mechanised factories. In the early 20th century it was the availability of electricity that enabled the introduction of the moving assembly lines of the second industrial revolution. In the 1950s, the third industrial revolution was enabled by advances in electronics in the form of transistors and then silicon that formed the core of the developments in computers and automation.

Now we appear to be on the verge of a 4th Industrial revolution. The German Government first coined the term Industry 4.0 to describe the fusion of the online world and the world of industrial production. A basic tenet of Industry 4.0 is the need for whole systems (as opposed to individual machines) that are self-optimising, self-configuring and self-diagnosing. I think we may be somewhere between Industry 3.5 and 3.9. Elements are in place, but others are not yet ready for primetime. Here are 3 key technology enablers that are at various stages of readiness.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is already being widely adopted. Simply put, the IoT is made up of devices that talk to each other… from industrial sensors, to home controls, wearables and your smartphone. Gartner have estimated that there will be 20 billion of these connected devices by 2020, up from 8.4 billion in 2017. To make the task of designing and deploying IoT systems you will want to use an IoT platform. This market is very new with large numbers of new entrants. All the major cloud providers have IoT platforms and there are more than 200 smaller vendors with platform offerings. Making the right choice for your business is not a simple task and is something I will come back to in the future. Suffice it to say, IoT is here to stay and you need to be looking at how your business can benefit.

The sheer volume of IoT devices and the data that they will produce will drive a need for greater capacity, increased reliability and lower latency for wireless networks. Step forward 5G. This next generation mobile/wireless network technology will deliver huge improvements in wireless network performance. While early trials are in place, don’t expect to see widespread availability and rollout of 5G networks until somewhere between 2020 and 2025. Network operators face significant additional infrastructure capital costs and will look to build specific vertical industry use case to support targeted rollouts. In the meantime, there will be developments in 4G and LTE networks that will start to incorporate the principles and technologies of 5G to give what I might term as a 4.5G interim solution to evolving IoT requirements.

The third essential infrastructure enabler is Edge computing. Very large amounts of data will be captured, stored and processed by these billions of connected devices. This has raised questions about where that storage and processing needs to happen. Data that is required for analytical processing and machine leaning, will most likely be done centrally in the cloud. However, significant amounts of IoT data will only have local implications and often have a short retention requirement. In this case storage and processing near the point of capture will be the most effective in terms of both costs and performance. This is driving the growth of a new generation of edge data centres… much smaller, often modular, containerised facilities that are usually fully automated to allow remote monitoring and operation.