Many people think electronic sensors are newfangled pieces of high-tech equipment, but such sensors have been around since the dawn of electricity when voltage needed to be regulated. In the broadest definition, a sensor is a device, module, machine, or subsystem whose purpose is to detect events or changes in its environment and send the information to other electronics.
We interact with such sensors on a daily basis. For example, when we press a button to call a lift, a sensor detects when the button is pressed, and so does the necessary commands. When we stand near an automatic door, a sensor (either an IR sensor mounted above the door, or a weight-sensitive sensor in the ground) instructs the electronics to open the door automatically.
And of course, sensors are used everywhere in industry. High-speed optical sensors can detect defects in picked fruits prior to packing. Manufacturing processes that involve toxic or hazardous substances rely on sensors to keep going. Hence, to a significant extent, manufacturing has been in the forefront of incorporating advanced sensor technology.
The current revolution in computer-integrated manufacturing has been enabled by advanced sensor technology. Technological progress has allowed more and more sensors to be manufactured on a microscopic scale as microsensors using MEMS technology. In most cases, a microsensor can achieve a significantly faster measurement time and higher sensitivity compared with macroscopic approaches.
Furthermore, an increasingly competitive global market-place has demonstrated the high cost of “inspecting-in” quality (i.e., the cost to assess the quality of the product after it has been manufactured and then “fix” or remake those parts that do not meet the required quality level). Consequently, quality must be an integral element of the manufacturing process, necessitating that the process be under control, either through constant monitoring using appropriate sensors or by withdrawing the product for inspection at intermediate manufacturing stages. In many instances today, manufacturing process sensors are the limiting capability that defines the best possible product performance and reliability.
Sensors when combined with Internet connectivity has given rise to what many are calling the Internet of Things, or IoT. When combined further with AI and automation, IoT is the linchpin of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which promises a great leap forward in productivity. Thus, broadly speaking, IoT is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.
Realising the Potential of IoT
Experts and analysts are predicting that IoT is going to have a huge impact on the market. Worldwide management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company’s own research suggests that IoT applications will be a US$11 trillion market by 2025. Global research firm, Gartner also predicts that there will be at least 25 billion connected devices by 2021.
Vinay Solanki, Head of IoT at Lenovo APAC, stated in an interview that there are many challenges that must be overcome to fully realize the potential of IoT. However, he identified four main issues that will be the most difficult to handle. The first of these is the managing of all the devices when upscaling. These include the production, delivery, maintenance, and support of all devices being utilized, which can easily be in the thousands; depending on how much expansion a business is experiencing.
The second challenge, according to Solanki, is the quality of devices. Durability is one of the key attributes here when it comes to quality. Devices must be optimized to work in difficult environment. This same durability has to apply to IoT as well. Device quality also plays into device obsolescence. As we all know, technology is advancing at a rapid pace. In just the past decade alone, device features in B2B as well as consumer goods have essentially doubled, even tripled in some instances with regards to functionality. Service providers have to offer an IoT platform and deliver it to consumers in a smoother way to avoid fast obsolescence.
The third challenge would be customer application. Taking connectivity as an example, there are currently numerous competing standards. There is 4G, 5G, narrowband IoT, WiFi, etc. With so many connectivity options, which is the best one for a particular application? Some will use one solution while others might use another. This creates incompatible standards due to applications being highly customized to fit the needs of the user. As a result, others might not find said application to be helpful for their own needs.
The final big challenge is the issue of security. Almost all business revolves around data now. There is so much data being generated. Security and privacy has become a premium, especially with the future of interconnectivity looming just around the corner.
For SMEs looking to implement IoT into their businesses, the motivation for such a choice is usually to reduce the costs within their business processes, to improve efficiency, or to create anew business or product line. Many SMEs, as Solanki explains, are unwilling to invest a huge amount upfront if they are unsure of the value they will gain from it.
Solanki explains that one of Lenovo’s solutions to solving these four issues is to offer IoT as a service. Service providers would take care of all the issues above, including managing of devices, device quality, and device obsolescence, leaving consumers with the simpler option of choosing whether to utilize the service or not.
Many SMEs have already realized that the adoption of IoT technology can be highly beneficial to them. However, it is not as easy to determine if they are well-placed to adopt the technology in the first place. To adopt IoT, a business needs to have some scale of maturity in their current processes. As mentioned before, SMEs tend to have highly specialized or customized devices and systems in place, which can make IoT implementation more difficult than a standardized system. It will certainly take to before we can say that SMEs will be fully ready to adopt IoT as standard, but at this point, we can almost certainly say it will happen sooner or later.