Are you looking for the best industrial IoT platform? Sorry, it’s not for sale. So, if your enterprise is serious about transforming your products, processes, and service relationships, you’ve got a problem. What do you see when you search? First, you’ll find IIoT analytics platforms. Then you’ll see drag-and-drop IIoT application platforms. You’ll read about connectivity platforms, device platforms, cloud platforms, and more. In reality, these are all just pieces. In fact, there’s only one platform in the world that matches your organization’s unique requirements. Just one option for elevating your position in the value chain, differentiating you from your competitors. But don’t bother searching for it on the web. It’s not there.
Actually, let’s pause for a quick gut check. Depending on your ambitions, there may be something on the shelf for you after all. We know one vendor with a plug-and-play service for throwing uptime data from machines onto a shop floor dashboard. New customers reported an instant 10% increase in worker productivity – simply because employees knew the machines were being monitored. If that’s all you’re looking for, go ahead and type “machine monitoring” into the address bar now, rather than reading the rest of this article. We’ll still count that as a win.
We’re about to dive into stories from companies leading the charge to transform their industries – driven either by ambition or sheer necessity – and how they’re taking control of their own digital future.
Cold chain storage and distribution
Industrial freezers are cold. Really cold. These facilities can be enormous. Day after day, fleets of refrigerated trailers arrive with more cargo for storage and distribution. Meanwhile, a similar stream of trucks idles anxiously, each driver preparing to depart for grocery stores, medical labs, cargo ships, and other destinations. As trucks come in, contents are unloaded and divided up, each pallet stored in a specified location. Then, pallets are picked and packed in unique combinations, and loaded into each truck heading out. It’s a grueling, resource-intensive, and highly competitive business.
Now, what if a facility could run 24 hours a day, every day? Furthermore, what if every aspect of the operation could be continuously measured, optimized, and automated? Such an operation would be more profitable and create a significant competitive advantage over traditional facilities.
Meanwhile, the fleet operators serving these facilities face their own challenges. Yet here too, opportunities abound. If they can solve more complex scenarios beyond the standard asset management issues of tracking and remote monitoring, they’ll create an edge in their own market.
For example, fleet operators must adhere to an increasing set of regulations, varying across different geographies. One state may require on-demand access to certain data around emissions, while a new federal law could require auditable logs for additional, previously unmonitored conditions. What if operators could rely on their systems to nimbly adapt to this changing patchwork, while remaining focused on their core business of serving their customers?
Similar examples are found in almost every industry.
ThingMakers, capital equipment providers, and OEMs
Imagine you’ve been a dominant player in your industry for almost a century. Suddenly, even your longest held customers view you as a commodity product vendor. In our global, connected economy, it’s just too easy for manufacturers and other operators to find “good enough” equipment at lower costs. Furthermore, service “pirates” with knockoff replacement parts and consumables are destroying your maintenance contracts and aftermarket businesses. Many customers are demanding raw data feeds from your machines as a requirement of even considering your installation on their lines. And it’s getting worse.
You’ve got to bring more to the table if you’re going to survive, let alone dominate. There are many paths you can choose. Predictive maintenance services, data aggregation, or customer facility optimization might be your play. Perhaps you’ve got full-blown Equipment-as-a-Service offerings on your mind. Maybe it’s an entirely new business model of your own design that can put you back on top. The bottom line is you’ve got to provide more overall value to your customers than anyone else. But you’re a hardware company. Digital transformation is a process, and you’re running out of time. What can you do?
Better living through chemistry
What about other sectors, such as chemical production, filtration, and fluid management? These are water treatment experts. They’re key players in the oil & gas industry. Many serve pharmaceutical giants and process manufacturers. They provide valuable services that enable their customers to focus on their own goals. City governments, labs managers, facility owners, energy producers, and manufacturing plant operators all need safe, pure water and other fluids to achieve their goals. The vendor who develops the most efficient internal operations for frictionless delivery of these essential products and services wins.
Let’s look at a simplified water treatment example. To fulfill their purpose, a particular organization requires a reliable source of safe, clean water for human consumption. To guarantee this, they sign an agreement with a vendor, who installs equipment for storing and dispensing chemicals designed to kill bacteria inside the customer’s facility. Now, two things must remain true at all times. First, the system must dispense a very specific amount of chemicals into the flow. Dispense too much, and people can get sick or die. Dispense too little, and… people can get sick or die. Second (and critical to the first), the supply of chemicals at the customer’s facility must never run out.
To ensure both these conditions are met, treatment vendors often rely on service personnel to manually check equipment functionality and tank levels. As in other industries, such activities can be both resource-intensive and not 100% reliable due to varying conditions and time constraints. However, by adding gateway hardware and embedded software to the dispensing equipment and tanks, more vendors are now remotely monitoring pump performance and consumables levels.
While a big leap forward, this creates a whole new set of challenges.
The answer is blowing in the wind
Now, you’re dealing with hundreds and often thousands of devices in the field, potentially all over the world. How are they to be provisioned, configured, and updated over time? There are unlikely to be experienced technicians at each site. Moreover, different conditions and requirements mean you’re likely going to have to support different types of hardware from multiple vendors. Connectivity will vary across customer locations, as will network protocols and operating environments. Critically, your team must find a way to remotely manage your global fleet over the air.
Hardware obsolescence is another concern. What happens when a model is discontinued or can’t be upgraded to support a new system requirement? Where will you find flexible software to run on all your gateway hardware and provide the special functionality you need – at a price point that fits your tight margins?
The change you want to see
Several years ago, a handful of major industrial vendors attempted to build general purpose platforms to solve such challenges. Hundreds of millions of dollars later, they’ve been scaled back dramatically for limited, “special” purpose scenarios, or shut down entirely. They never had a chance. After all, even competitors in the same industry can have completely different sets of requirements, constraints, and goals. Imagine trying to provide all these things across industries as well.
Don’t forget that each facility manager, equipment maker, and service operator is specifically aiming to provide unique products and services, optimize their own internal processes, and drive new business models that are both defensible and differentiated from close competitors. How can you win if you’re stuck with the same capabilities and limitations as everyone else? Stop looking for a faster horse. It’s time to build your flying car.
On the shoulders of giants
Certainly, there’s a lot of value in all those IoT analytics, mobile application development, device management, edge, and cloud platforms. Just don’t call them those things. Instead, consider them as packaged sets of solved problems. Take a close look at each of them. If they’re flexible enough to meet your requirements and enable your key scenarios – without locking you into a closed ecosystem or taking control of your data – go for it. They can provide a tremendous advantage over building everything from scratch (or paying someone else to do so).
For example, the major cloud providers offer components that dramatically reduce the upfront development and ongoing maintenance costs for key infrastructure and other puzzle pieces. Similarly, specialized analytics, edge, and connectivity vendors can provide additional bricks for your path. To put it bluntly, if it feels good – do it. Depending on your specific domain and ambitions, you might actually get pretty close to what you need with the right combination of services. Your goal is to minimize the amount of custom development needed to achieve your business outcomes, while maximizing your flexibility for incorporating future innovations.
The race has already begun. Fortunately, you can start now and apply these principles for creating your own industrial IoT platform. That’s what the industry leaders of tomorrow are doing today. If you’d like to learn more about what you can buy and what you should build, how to test for value and accelerate innovation, or enlist an experienced partner to help bring it all together, contact us for an introductory conversation.