Oct 1, 2019, 05:00pm
Ryan Chan Forbes Councils Member
Forbes Technology Council COUNCIL POST | Paid Program
The concept of “maintenance” dates back thousands of years, but most people today see maintenance as inextricably intertwined with technology. As automation increases and we march toward a new era that’s been dubbed Industry 4.0 , many people worry about the impact technology will have on industrial jobs . As the developer of mobile maintenance software designed specifically for field technicians, I’m particularly focused on how software systems and applications will evolve to elevate the blue collar workforce in the foreseeable future.
One of the most exciting components of the Industry 4.0 revolution is the promise of cloud-connected IoT devices that facilitate remote monitoring and control of critical manufacturing equipment, thereby reducing downtime and saving organizations an enormous amount of time and money while minimizing the risk assumed by field technicians. However, IoT implementation remains extremely limited in industrial settings, and many question when and how it will finally become status quo.
One way to formulate answers to these questions is to look back at the evolution of maintenance technology and, in particular, maintenance software, which became an indispensable tool in developing the aerospace industry. The enormous financial investment in multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment, combined with a responsibility to protect the human lives onboard, necessitated an extreme, unprecedented level of reliability. Decades ago, this reliability was achieved with desktop software running on incredibly expensive, giant mainframe computers that used local servers and required top notch security.
The next phase of maintenance software evolution involved transforming desktop software into digital cloud-based software. This shift democratized the highest level of security and reliability by making maintenance software technology scalable and therefore affordable. What once was technology enjoyed solely by this specific aerospace sector is now accessible to smaller independent organizations across a wide variety of industries.
Today, we’re seeing the mobilization of maintenance technology. My company produces a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) that makes it easier for today’s growing deskless workforce to submit work orders from their mobile devices. Mobile CMMS software also allows organizations to keep better track of preventative maintenance tasks, which can dramatically extend equipment lifetime, increase productivity and ultimately boost profits.
But maintenance software still has so much untapped potential. I believe the next generation of Industry 4.0 software will empower even more people, organizations and entire industries through the successful mainstream implementation of connected IoT devices. The advent of IoT could very likely reshape the way that people use software and technology, especially with respect to (preventative) maintenance and reliability. The challenge we face today is how to democratize the same standard of security that has been of vital importance since maintenance software’s inception.
The Big Picture
What makes the concept of IoT so exciting for our industry is the unique opportunity to combine data collected from mechanical sensors with human insight to drive better business decisions. Much of the requisite technology already exists. For example, most large manufacturing facilities already possess supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which use sensors to collect and network data for high-level process management within a centralized system.
By contrast, fully realized industrial IoT would drastically increase the scalability of these maintenance processes by standardizing data aggregation from different equipment and manufacturers via serverless architecture. This would make it possible to process and interpret substantially more data and remotely control variables such as temperature and humidity from any IoT device.
It’s the control component of this IoT ecosystem, which is arguably more important than the sensory component, that has yet to come to fruition, largely because so much is at stake. Facilities (such as oil and gas) with large-scale SCADA systems rely not only on supremely precise data collection and aggregation; they also depend on various emergency systems built into the system’s programming logic, which apply the breaks whenever a threshold is exceeded (e.g. a SCADA system that monitors a flare stack’s pilot light might be programmed to shut down a plant’s operation if that pilot light is extinguished, in order to prevent an explosion or toxic gas emission).
A Pioneering Leap
IoT innovations have made equipment sensors much more affordable and accessible, so collecting the necessary volume and types of data is much easier than ever before. Today’s IoT startups are almost exclusively focused on acquiring and installing these sensors, but utilizing that data to affect positive outcomes in potentially life-or-death situations will require a much more radical leap.
Security is a large concern. A remotely controlled IoT facility might invite a lot of outside threat from third-party intruders who could gain access to a system and control it from thousands of miles away. This scenario rightfully scares a lot of people. And while I believe a solution is on the horizon, IoT security is a difficult problem to solve, because it requires staying one step ahead of potential hackers at all times.
Reaching The Point Of No Return
Ultimately, I believe the tipping point for IoT will be reached when the benefits outweigh the security hazards. We’ll likely see most businesses rushing towards the IoT Industry 4.0 revolution once IoT’s capabilities extend beyond simple on-off switches to more advanced and nuanced functions. Over time, this will exponentially boost safety and productivity. Once one large technology giant establishes the value of IoT, it will effectively become a necessity. Society will then reach a point of no return, when IoT becomes industry standard and the risk is worth the reward.