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The challenges involved in designing and building devices for the Internet of Things

From the left: moderator Dickon Ross; Martin Griffiths, metis Automation; Rahman Jamal, NI; Iain MacLachlan, Eurotech; and Russ McKay, IBM

Last week’s NI Days, held in London’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference centre, focused on the problems confronting design engineers when it comes to managing the escalating complexity that is associated with the Internet of Things (IoT).

According to Erik Van Hilton, a senior technical marketing engineer at NI: “Design engineers are confronting, on a daily basis, ever more stringent requirements including the need for more processing power, greater connectivity and control.”

He suggested that the impact of the IoT was growing as sensing and processing were becoming cheaper and more powerful and was affecting people’s everyday lives.

The evolution of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), or the Smart Factory, has seen the development of an increasingly complex network of products, systems and services and engineers will have to figure out how and where their work fits into this picture.

A panel discussion explored the challenges involved in designing and building devices for the IIoT.

Panel member Iain MacLachlan, IoT business manager with Eurotech, said that at the heart of the IoT was ‘how we apply technology to help deal with the challenges customers confront. How do you monetise data analytics?’.

Raman Jamal, regional marketing director for NI, warned that ‘sensors would have to evolve. Processing will need to happen at the edge before data is passed on. It’s about taking data and creating information’.

“There is a real risk of data overload,” warned Russ McKay, an IoT specialist at IBM. “What’s important is that we take data and, through clever analytics, add value to it.”

Issues of privacy, security and data ownership were raised and McKay said that everyone should be viewing security as ‘the number one issue for anyone associated with the IoT’.

“We should be very concerned at what happens to our data and how we treat our customer’s data,” he warned.

But, as the panel revealed, companies are accessing and using data very differently.

“Retailers are unlikely to want to share their customer data, but sensors on a jet engine are being used to share data across the supply chain. Companies need to be clear about what data they are willing to share,”

said MacLachlan. “I don’t think legislation is needed but, in all likelihood, it will happen.”

The panel did raise the issue of who would ultimately own the data.

“Will it be the system, component supplier or the end user?,” Jamal wondered.

A contribution from the floor pointed out that much of the discussion had focused on the corporate intranet, rather than the IoT. What would the obstacles be to companies sharing more data? How would data be collected and from where and what value might different organisations then place on the data collected.

McKay raised the point that while IBM had been sharing data for a long time ‘only now are we getting into analytics’. But he then raised the point of accuracy. “Is that data you collect accurate? The human element of data collection is massively ignored which could mean that while it is good analysis, it could be rubbish analysis!”

According to McKay some forward thinking companies are using the IIoT to allocate machine management to individuals. The machines, fitted with sensors, can then communicate problems to the allocated worker via a tweet.

“Essentially, it is healthcare for machines,” he suggested.

Jamal added: “The true Fourth Industrial Revolution will only come about when the IoT and social media are woven together seamlessly.”

Highlighting engineering's positive impact

Another hot topic at this year’s NI Days was the importance of raising public awareness of the positive impact engineering has on all aspects of everyday lives and of highlighting, to young people, the immense depth and breadth of opportunities a career in engineering can offer.

In the second keynote of the day, Professor Danielle George from the University of Manchester, talked of the importance of injecting fun into the teaching of science and the importance of what she described as ‘tinkering’.

“The next generation of engineers need to be encouraged to tinker, or ‘thinker’ as I call it,” she said. “Engineering should be seen as fun first, to which you then add more practical experience within the classroom. Students need to be encouraged to experiment and fail and we, as academics or industrialists, will need to raise our game if we are to capture their imagination.”

Neil Tyler

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