With the luxury of time away from the ‘day job’, I went to this year’s SmartSummit in London to see what I could learn about the internet of things (IoT). There’s much talk of conventional organisations being ‘Uber-ised’ by small disruptor companies, changing the way entire industries operate, and the IoT is potentially part of that disruption.
There were three separate conference strands at SmartSummit 2016 – Home, Cities and Industry, but which to attend? I checked the attendee list but I couldn’t spot anyone else from social housing. The Smart Homes speakers were as I expected, lots of retailers such as Amazon, Ikea, John Lewis, and Tesco, and manufacturers such as Electrolux, Honeywell, Panasonic covering the headline topics of security, health, and entertainment. I’ve seen presentations on the potential benefits of IoT and wanted to focus on something new, so looked at Smart Cities. Their speakers fell into two camps: city councils (Bristol to Newcastle, Marseille to Moscow) and engineers, consultants and academics (Arup, Crossrail, Siemens, Open University, etc) but I thought there was limited scope for an individual housing provider to drive the agenda. The Industrial Internet, on the other hand – what was that going to come up with? It looked like the richest ground for completely new ideas, so I headed that way.
The Industrial Internet’s speakers mostly related to ‘big equipment’, such as the airline sector (Airbus, Rolls Royce, Heathrow Airport, Lufthansa), and ‘yellow machines’ (Amey, Hitachi, Kone) as well as a biotech company, several utilities, a couple of universities and, closer to home, RICS.
The most engaging sessions were the case studies. I’d guessed these would build on the process control world, in place in manufacturing for years; that proved right. The big changes which IoT devices and connectivity have brought are:
- Process controls used to be installed in factories, where machines were monitored from purpose-built control rooms. Now, with so much equipment having technology installed to support basic operations, and monitors connected wirelessly, equipment in the field can be analysed and potentially controlled in a similar way. Kone reported that they’ve not only used this to maintain their own cranes on customers’ sites, collecting lifetime costs and checking whether the cranes have been used correctly but they can also offer support for competitors’ equipment. The information Kone have collected has allowed them to change their entire business model; they now see themselves as primarily providing a lifting service, rather than selling lifting equipment.
- ‘Smart’ devices are so ubiquitous and cheap that IoT can be applied in unconventional environments. In the consumer market, this applies to everything from wearables to USB-charged bike lights. In industry, there are more specialised devices: sensors for farming, chips on boxes, which don’t need to be installed in permanent equipment. Cheap, biodegradable sensors can be thrown out into fields to collect data on humidity, nutrition, response to chemicals and crop growth, and by providing data from numerous points in a field, they can help fine-tune the application of water, seeds, fertilisers, etc. And an individual box can now report back on the temperature, humidity, impacts it’s been through, and its current location.
Alongside the case studies, there were several presentations on standards. Leaders in the IoT field have realised that separate worlds are converging – Operational Technology (OT) and IT. If standards for collecting and sharing data aren’t set up, it’ll make it much harder to reap the benefits. There’s an initiative on standards for SIMs (now being installed not just in phones and tablets, but in cars, smart meters, diabetes monitoring kits and so on). And also a move on interfaces, led by equipment manufacturers such as Siemens, working with SAP and Microsoft.
Not surprisingly, the standards presentations were pretty dry, but they gave a useful overview of the areas where solutions are being developed. These included ageing, farming and food, wearables, cities, mobility, water management, manufacturing, energy, and buildings and architecture.
As one speaker explained, there isn’t a single IoT industry; there are a multitude of opportunities, in individual industries. Perhaps the multitude of opportunities within social housing, as our sector itself is diverse, is our key challenge?
The panel discussions touched on this, and other blockers to adoption. Innovation needs joint inputs from areas such as IT, marketing, procurement, finance and manufacturing. IoT initiatives face the same challenge as the move to Digital; in some organisations IT leads the innovation agenda, but in others, it’s more dissipated.
If you can resolve the ownership problem, these are some of the practical barriers:
- Connectivity – Remote sites, thick walls, deep basements and so on.
- Latency – For industrial controls (e.g. machine tools), sub-second responses can be crucial but perhaps that’s less of an issue in housing.
- Security – Historically, operational devices haven’t been connected and haven’t had anti-virus software because of the risks of interrupting them with automatic software updates, but hackers using this weakness to launch attacks is now a reality. Conventional IT teams, as found in housing providers, are much more clued up about privacy and security issues than OT providers, for whom virus and data protection issues are new.
- Legacy – Getting devices up to new standards will take time where there’s already an installed base. For organisations such as hospitals, with an array of existing equipment, replacement will happen gradually.
- Data volumes and skills – Real-time transmission of a constant stream of readings from IoT devices generates huge volumes of data. The challenge is to do something useful with all this data. Speakers talked of an ‘arms race for talent’ already happening. This was where the speaker from the RICS came in: their director of professional groups is so convinced of this that he’s planning to combine data science into surveyors’ professional training.
So the key things I would pass on to Housing Technology readers are:
- Nothing I saw came as a great surprise, but it was a timely reminder that we have to be ready to innovate.
- At the moment, the IoT feels like a set of solutions looking for problems; like AI did, for many years.
- Data is set to take off, both in volume and as an analytical tool, so be ready with an infrastructure which can expand and the skills to work out what it all means. Getting existing data clean is an essential start.
Even in unexpected industries, IoT can be a disrupter. Who would have thought that the IoT would revolutionise a crane manufacturer, so watch this space.
Caroline Morgan is an IT director at Seedcorn Consulting.