Gateways to Delivering the Value of IIoT

Yesterday afternoon I happened to look at the top bar of my computer screen and noticed I had twelve search tabs open. It is easy to get lost in an information labyrinth when you are researching the IIoT—the Industrial Internet of Things. And I wasn’t just researching everything about it—this was not a one-hundred-thousand-foot survey. I was focused on a particular functional area of the IIoT: the Gateway.

Motivating this research was my belief that IIoT gateways, metal or plastic boxes with circuit boards (PCBAs) inside them, represent a very large revenue opportunity for electronics manufacturing services (EMS) providers. The hypothesis: if the value of the IIoT is even half of what the business research community believes it will be, and given that the gateway is an essential link in the IIoT value delivery chain, then a whole lot of gateways will be needed as IIoT implementations begin to proliferate.

Gateways convert the data emitted by sensors in the factory or the processing plant (data sent in dozens of different protocols) to standard IP-formatted data, then send this data over the network for processing. The sexy part of the IIoT is analyzing these terabytes of sensor readings—“Big Data”—for patterns, correlations, anomalies, and other types of actionable information. But the plumbing needs to be there too, and gateways are just that—infrastructure without which there would be no digits to analyze.

So why was I getting literally amazed by the IIoT, with one web page leading me to another until I forgot what I was trying to do in the first place? If gateways are plumbing, and everybody needs plumbing, isn’t that enough to know?

My thinking was: it is not. I was trying to validate a secondary hypothesis: that the IIoT gateway will evolve from being mostly a translator to being an integral part of the IIoT’s computational fabric: not just a translator, but an author. This is important to know, because if true it means that there will be a continuous stream of new gateway designs needing to be built; new designs mean new PCBAs, which mean new business for EMS providers.

I never found the path out of the labyrinth, but I went far enough through it to be confident to state that gateways will inevitably become more powerful, and the number of functions they perform will increase. Innovation in gateway technology will drive many new design projects. Consider the following:

  • The filtering of sensor data will become more important. It is expensive to transmit and store data, so why send useless data to the cloud, the data center, or a “data lake” for analysis? Gateways will need to perform increasingly sophisticated filtering operations on sensor data, enabled by faster processors and more memory.
  • Gateways will be designed for multi-device data aggregation and real time analytics, and used in process control applications where the results of the analyses are needed quickly and used locally. An example of such an application is if the temperature of a holding tank in an in-line pharmaceutical manufacturing process needs to be changed based on an optimization algorithm running on the gateway. This is the Edge Computing model, or as some call it, Fog computing.(How about “Little Data”?)
  • Gateways will be expected to service an increasing number of sensors and smart devices (per gateway).
  • Functions associated with device discovery and provisioning will be delegated to the gateway. Device management will be shared with the IIoT management platform running in the cloud.
  • Gateways will be designed to network with each other and share resources. Driving this design improvement will be the benefits of increasing the reliability of the network via some degree of redundancy, and achieving the required amount of computing power from a distributed architecture.
  • The demand for increased security via more powerful encryption technology will cause use of larger and faster processors.
  • Gateways will become servers for applications that extend the value of real time analytics.For example, consider an incident management application that initiates a “blast” voice conference call connecting a pre-determined DL of subject matter experts best qualified to quickly respond to and manage the incident. (REDCOM offers such an application.)

The IIoT is a complex adaptive system, which means that gateways will both influence and be influenced by developments in other parts of the system.Advances in protocol standardization, smart sensors, software applications, and network technologies will affect gateway design.As a distinct computing device category, IIoT gateways are still in the early stages of their evolution, but even today, it is clear that they are destined to bear an increasing amount of the burden associated with realizing the value of IIoT.