There won’t be just one wireless technology for industrial IoT, but many
Rolls-Royce uses IoT to increase jet engine fuel efficiency, optimize flight paths, and improve maintenance to achieve a one percent reduction in fuel usage that translates to a $250,000 per plane per year efficiency cost saving; Royal Dutch Shell realized a $1M return on an $87,000 investment in a remote IoT-based asset monitoring and maintenance solution that tracks activity across 80 oil fields in West Africa; And Harley Davidson grew overall profitability by between 3 to 4 percent by shifting production to a fully IoT-enabled plant. So says a recent article published in Forbes (referencing a study called “Unlocking the business value of IoT in operations” from consultant Capgemini).
With cost and efficiency savings like these, it’s not a question of “if” industrial IoT (IIoT) will impact my organization’s business model, but “when”. And one of the most challenging parts of the implementation process will be deciding between a dizzying array of wireless technologies to underpin your IIoT network. The problem is further complicated by the fact that no single wireless technology will likely be able to meet all the demands of your IIoT strategy: you may need several working in harmony.
The complexity introduced by having to choose between multiple (typically competing) wireless technologies has understandably bred a lot of confusion in the market. But things can be simplified with a broad understanding of the various IIoT-relevant wireless technologies on offer, why there are so many, and focusing on the needs of the actual application to narrow down your list of hopefuls.
Standard or proprietary
Wireless standards relevant to the IIoT come in two broad categories: standards-based and proprietary.
The main standards-based technologies include:
- Cellular (specifically the latest IIoT-targeted ‘LTE-M’ and ‘NB-IoT’ variants)
The main proprietary technologies include:
The key difference between standards-based and proprietary is that the former is “owned” (developed, licensed, and controlled) by multiple companies with multiple vendors (typically under an umbrella organization such as an alliance, partnership, or special interest group) whereas proprietary technologies are owned and promoted by just one company.
Pros and cons of each
Because they are formed from a large group of companies, standards-based wireless technologies tend to have a large pool of skilled engineers and resources to draw upon, encourage a sustainable multivendor supply chain, and give end users confidence that the technology is likely to stay around for some time. On the downside, standards governing bodies can grow to become very big and political, which can slow the evolution of the entire standard, place a drag on innovation, and introduce barriers to entry that can make it harder for new or smaller entrants to gain traction. The latter is a primary driver behind the launch of new wireless technologies designed to fill a niche that existing standards aren’t considered to be effectively addressing.
In contrast, proprietary wireless technologies have a much smaller pool of available talent and resources to draw upon, carry the risks associated with any monopoly, and historically tend to remain fairly niche. On the plus side, however, their lack of governing-body inertia can make the firms driving the technology quicker to respond to changes in market demand.
Where wireless technologies come from
All wireless technologies were born to solve a specific application challenge in a specific market. Bluetooth, for example, was initially designed to eliminate the tangle of wires created when PC peripherals such as mice and keyboards were connected to computers. And Wi-Fi got started to overcome the installation expense and complexity of hard-wired Ethernet networks used to link desktop computers. Such specialization is why some wireless technologies are better suited to certain use-cases than others in terms of cost, ubiquity, reliability, throughput, range, power consumption, and complexity.
But it also means what might work very well in, for example, a relatively low-volume medical environment, won’t necessarily work well in a high-speed manufacturing application, which in turn won’t necessarily be ideal for a large-scale smart city installation.
The key thing to realize is that wireless technologies continuously change because the demands of the applications they were created to serve continuously change. This is why no single wireless technology will solve all of the IIoT’s challenges: every application will almost certainly require a combination of wireless technologies and those that do not learn to play nicely together and get along with others are going to struggle to succeed in the long-run.
There are some general questions that can be asked of any IIoT application that will usually narrow-down the wireless technology options. These questions include:
- How much design complexity will my IIoT wireless technology introduce?
- How secure do I need my IIoT wireless technology to be?
- How reliable do I need my IIoT wireless technology to be?
- How fast (data throughput rate) do I need my IIoT wireless technology to be?
- How low power (e.g. capable of battery-operation) do I need my IIoT wireless technology to be?
- How easily can my wireless IIoT technology be combined with other wireless IIoT technologies?
- And finally: Do I need my IIoT wireless solution to be capable of operating globally?
Don’t wait around for a golden wireless technology to solve all your IIoT problems (or you could be waiting for a very long time). Focus on solving the IIOT problem by choosing the best of today’s wireless technologies rather than trying to predict which wireless standard your organization might still be using in a decade (this one may not even exist yet). Pick what’s best today but accept its leadership might not always be assured and be ready and willing to adapt if a better solution comes along.
This article was written by Svein-Egil Nielsen, Chief Technology Officer at Nordic Semiconductor, that became the world’s leading Bluetooth chip supplier by removing all unnecessary technical complexity to maximize Bluetooth’s applicable application range and now aims to do the same in cellular IoT with its LTE-M/NB-IoT module solutions.