Analyst opinion

The recent Industry of Things World conference in Berlin offered insights into the state of the much-hyped Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). At one end, big early adopters such as Airbus, Western Digital and HPE told how their investments in IIoT are genuinely paying off, while at the other, forward-looking tech developers – both start-ups and established suppliers alike – offered fascinating visions of the future of industry.

HPE was also the conference’s lead sponsor, which was interesting of itself. Although better known these days in the data centre, HPE – or rather its parent HP – has a long heritage in industry. Much of the HP family silver was sold off by past CEOs though, in moves that look even more questionable to me now than they did at the time.

What HPE and the other speakers at IoT World have recognised, unlike those misguided former HP execs, is that we are seeing the digital transformation of industry. Volkhard Bregulla, HPE’s VP of manufacturing, spoke for example about manufacturing’s move from automation to autonomy, and to closed-loop manufacturing where IIoT lets you “make everything transparent.”

Others, such as Dave Rauch, Western Digital’s senior VP for world-wide manufacturing operations, spoke persuasively about the need to integrate IIoT in an ongoing and holistic way. It’s not like an ERP system, he said, where “you assemble a team, create a project and so on, and at some point you’re done.” Like any digital transformation process, IIoT is a journey, not a simple destination.

And of course there will be pitfalls and road-blocks along the way. David Purón, the CEO of IoT management start-up Barbara, talked of the need to overcome expertise shortages and device integration woes, for instance. Other start-ups focused on the need to simplify, from edge analytics developer Crosser, filtering data streams from millions of sources for analysis, to Fero Labs, using machine learning to turn IoT data into actionable – and explainable – advice.

The essential human factors in IIoT

When you step back and look at the broader picture though, the common thread is the human element. Sometimes it’s the skills shortage, other times it’s the need to make the incomprehensibly complex simple enough to understand – and more importantly, to act upon. And in some cases, as with ViveLabErgo, it’s about using virtual reality to simulate the people working alongside your advanced machinery to ensure they’re both safe and efficient.

Overall, it is a reminder that even in the sensored-up and AI-enabled industries of the future, there will still be people. They might be there to do skilled manual work that’s too intricate and low-volume to be automated, to supply social and emotional intelligence, or to assess the automatically generated evidence and make the final decision.

Or like most of the people reading this, they will be filling those roles that require us to comfortably assimilate and intuitively combine a breadth and depth of expertise and knowledge that machines simply can’t handle.

Either way, as you make machines autonomous and instrument your processes, the importance of the remaining human element will actually increase, not fall. Not only is it vital to recognise that, but it’s essential to get the people on-board with the changes. In an IIoT project you underestimate the human element and the degree of cultural change involved at your peril.

Originally published on Freeform Dynamics’ Computer Weekly Blog – Write Side Up

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