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19 January 2021

Time has come for Industrial IoT to join the dots of fragmented alliances

Despite a spate of initiatives and alliances around the Industrial IoT (IIoT), there is a sense of chipping around the edges and gathering low hanging fruit rather than driving broader collaboration across the field. There have been a few wider collaborative activities aimed at drawing in larger numbers of partners in all relevant sectors spanning the field, but so far these seem to be at the stage of identifying and overcoming obstacles to progress.

Such constraints are both technological and commercial, since collaboration is required between enterprises that are either unfamiliar in dealing with each other, or wary of partnering because they are competitors. Neither of these barriers are insurmountable, because technical issues are already being overcome, while necessary collaboration between erstwhile competitors has long been the norm in many sectors, spawning ugly phrases such as coopetition (cooperation/competition) and frenemy. A contemporary example is Samsung supplying components for Apple iPhones that compete with its own smartphones.

The one broad IIoT industry initiative independent of any single enterprise comprises a series of collaborative projects between the Internet of Things Community and the IEEE IoT Initiative started in January 2020. However, this is a longer term set of projects to develop common industry standards and frameworks, aiming to share information and expertise, with little immediate impact on the field.

At the other end of the spectrum as it were, partnerships with the most immediate impact have naturally been those directly targeting applications for specific enterprises, but these do not in the first instance generalize across the wider sector. Some of these involve MNOs, such as Telefónica’s collaboration with Spanish automotive component maker Gestamp to connect up factory components like robotic welding cells to a 5G network for data capture in process control and proactive monitoring. This connects the equipment directly to multi-access edge computing (MEC) without touching the Internet or public 5G network and is notable for exploiting a digital twin of the factory. This is a virtual model of the factory simulated in software, used here for testing decision making and processes exploiting the newly connected infrastructure.

A few major MNOs have forged partnerships targeting the whole manufacturing sector, as Verizon has done with Deloitte in joint activities around 5G and MEC announced December 2020. This is taking Verizon’s own Customer Technology Center in Richardson, Texas, as a proving ground, applying computer vision and various sensors hitched to the MEC to predict and then identify product defects on the assembly line, with the aid of machine learning algorithms. The aim is then to bring this to market as an integrated MEC/5G package for monitoring and predictive maintenance on the assembly line.

This, then, is still centered around a single package that can be offered. What might be called fully comprehensive cross-industry IIoT partnerships are still rare, one example being Adamos (ADAptive Manufacturing Open Solutions). This was founded by German enterprise IT application group Software AG, claiming this to be the “first alliance of global market leaders in mechanical and plant engineering”.

The Adamos alliance has attracted a range of manufacturing firms, aimed specifically at the plant manufacturing center. This makes sense because it provides a target with particular needs and yet a base from which more generic aspects of the product and technology portfolio assembled can be generalized to the wider manufacturing and engineering IIoT sector. This can be seen by considering two of the early results of this collaboration.

ILLIG Maschinenbau, a German maker of manufacturing systems such as thermoplastic molding machines, has developed a digital service platform called ILLIG Assist based on the Adamos IIoT platform, in conjunction with IIoT services and software firm elunic as enabling partner. This supports capture and transmission of events or diagnostics at the machine level.

Then Karl Mayer, a maker of textile machines, has developed apps based on the Adamos IIoT platform, enabling data on speed, output, availability and performance of its systems to be monitored in real time and displayed directly on panels. Although both these examples are specific to the underlying machines initially, they will provide scope through the Adamos platform for wider applicability in the plant sector.

Meanwhile, Software AG is intent on replicating Adamos in other IIoT sectors beyond plants, exploiting the expertise and ideas already gained. The firm has positioned itself as the carrier’s friend in a field that has proved hostile to MNOs so far, particularly in Germany as it happens. The company senses an opportunity here, perhaps more beyond its domestic borders, aiming to make carriers compelling providers of managed IIoT services pivoting around private 5G networks.

As we have reported before, it is especially in Germany, the heartland of IIoT so far given the country’s diverse base of complementary manufacturers, where the big makers at the head of supply chains have resisted involvement of MNOs by setting up their own private 5G networks. This includes BMW, Bosch, Siemens and Volkswagen.

For MNOs then the support and commitment of Software AG offers hope of assembling competitive IIoT coalitions and gaining some foothold in that pivotal German market while targeting prospects elsewhere.