The many wireless faces of IIoT


Companies shouldn’t wait for a winner in the wireless technology battle before embracing Industrial IoT 

According to a recent Forbes article, Rolls-Royce used the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve jet-engine efficiency and save up to $250,000 per plane a year in fuel, Royal Dutch Shell realized a $1M return on an $87,000 investment in a remote IoT-based asset monitoring and maintenance solution across 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.

With cost and efficiency savings like these, industrial IoT (IIoT) will impact every organization’s business model. But implementing IIoT is not easy; one of the most challenging parts of the process is deciding which wireless technologies are best suited to the network. It’s likely to be a combination of several because no single technology meets all the communication demands.

Wireless standards relevant to the IIoT come in two broad categories: standards-based (for example LTE-M/NB-IoT, Bluetooth, Thread, and Zigbee) and proprietary (such as Z-Wave, Sigfox, and LoRa).

The key difference between the two is that standards-based technologies are developed, licensed, and controlled by alliances or special interest groups comprising many commercial companies, whereas proprietary technologies are owned (and promoted) by a single company.

Because they are collaborative ventures, 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 be there tomorrow. On the downside, standards governing bodies can be bureaucratic, which can slow the standard’s development, place a drag on innovation, and introduce obstacles that make it harder for new or smaller entrants to gain traction.

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 tend to remain 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.

Playing nicely together
All wireless technologies were conceived to solve a specific engineering challenge in a specific sector. 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 practicality.

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. Nonetheless, wireless technologies evolve because the demands of the applications they were created to serve 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 are going to struggle to succeed.

That means it’s not a good policy for a company to wait around for a ‘golden’ wireless technology to appear and solve all its IIoT problems. Rather a firm should focus on solving today’s IIoT challenge by choosing the best of contemporary wireless technologies instead of trying to predict which one will be dominant in a decade. Companies should pick what’s winning today but accept that technology’s leadership might not always be assured and be ready to adapt if a better solution comes along. 

A tough choice

Companies face a tough choice for their IIoT requirements as no single wireless technology fits every application