Last week, the biggest players in the industrial internet of things gathered in Hannover, Germany for a massive trade show focused on industrial technology. Hannover Messe (which means “Hannover Fair”) has morphed from a trade show focused on equipment to one focused on information technology.
While the show has always appealed to big names in IT that needed to show off their wares to industrial customers, in the last four years we’ve seen Amazon, Microsoft, and others have a bigger presence at the show as they focus more on their respective industrial IoT businesses. For example, this year was the first ever for Qualcomm, a CES and telco event mainstay.
Qualcomm was drawn to the show by the hope that industrial buyers will embrace the new 5G cellular standards. The chip vendor showed off 5G-capable gear working on a test network that it and Nokia had helped set up; partners that used the network to demonstrate 5G use cases included Siemens, Ziess, and Bosch Rexroth. A remotely operated robot made by Goetting streamed HD video from the show floor over the 5G network.
Nokia and Ericsson both went big on 5G as well. Ericsson showed off a partnership with manufacturer ABB for wireless factories that uses 5G networks. As I talked about last week, one of the goals of using wireless in factories is to increase production flexibility, moving robots and machinery around as needed to make manufacturing lines more agile. Though at this point, any 5G-related news is largely about convincing manufacturing customers that wireless offers real advantages for their factories. Historically, those customers have relied on wires or proprietary wireless standards for communication on their factory floors.
Factories are tough environments for radio waves, as they contain large hunks of metal that can disrupt a wireless signal simply by being in the way. Security concerns also get in the way. Manufacturers are so worried about their production lines getting hacked they isolate wireless networks, and still prefer wires for any machines that are doing a job. Though the machines that monitor the machines that are actually doing said job are slowly becoming wireless.
Factories also need to be low-latency, highly resilient environments. Data must arrive quickly and packets can’t go astray on a factory network. In the last two years, we’ve seen industrial vendors work on wired Ethernet networks to make sure these two factors are addressed. In fact, this year at Hannover Messe the Industrial Internet Consortium demonstrated how to use the time-sensitive networking protocol for Ethernet in factories.
While 5G is wireless and Ethernet it wired, the underlying trend is still the move from proprietary, factory-specific tech to standardized information technology. But the industrial world is immature when it comes to IT. The companies I speak with are more focused on solving a problem than they are on the building blocks needed to get there.
I think of industrial customers as buying the equivalent of Apple products. They want an ecosystem that lets them plug together the elements they need without any fuss — or expertise. The downside of this approach is that they become locked into that ecosystem, and are subsequently at the mercy of any pricing or technology shifts doled out by the vendor network that controls it.
For example, Microsoft and BMW are making a big deal of a new Open Manufacturing Platform that they launched at the show. Despite the use of the word open, the platform itself relies on Microsoft’s Azure services for the computing elements. What they really launched is a reference design for manufacturers to work from. Similarly, the Open Industry 4.0 Alliance also launched at the show, backed by SAP and robotics vendor Kuka.
I have nothing against the Apple approach to industrial IoT. Many of these buyers don’t have staff with the expertise needed to craft their own industrial solutions. Pulling together everything from sensors and the cloud while also figuring out which communications protocols to use, how to structure data, and how do all of it within the confines of highly specific industry standards is not an easy task.
It reminds me of 20 years ago, when the IT world was getting excited about appliances. Companies would take all of the software needed to perform an IT function, pack it into a box, and start selling it. Customers who bought the box would then pay a maintenance or licensing fee each year for upgrades and service. Neither agile nor software as a service was on the radar yet.
Now the industrial IoT world has the tools needed for the modern IT developer but doesn’t yet have the people who can wield them. Though I would add that most of the IT vendors don’t yet have the highly specific tools needed by some of these industrial companies. What I saw at Hannover Messe were representatives from both worlds trying to build those tools and then share their designs with others. Lock-in is a small price to pay for simplicity when you’re just learning something.
I fully expect that in five years industrial IoT customers will have developed the skills needed to leave the Apple or appliance model behind. I also expect that the IT vendors creating the partnerships and reference designs are well aware of the coming shift. After all, many of them have lived through it before.