31 October 2013

Internet industrially - doping for competitiveness

I got to know industrial automation in the late 1980s, when we developed software and interface modules based on Bitbus distributed control standard to connect sensors and actuators. In mid 1990s, I was leading another company, which created and sold one of the first machine-to-machine (M2M) solutions based on wireless communications. This fuelled the view that this area will generate great business - but, as is often the case, slower than we imagined at the time.

In retrospect, it can be understood why in the 1990s there was no premises for the emergence of major businesses:
  • Availability and use of sensors were limited and the prices were high: for example, our proprietary GPS tracking solution cost hundreds of dollars per unit
  • IP technologies and wireless communications were not yet sufficiently developed: for example, we had to use wireless SMS and a proprietary protocol built on top of it to communicate with smart devices 
  • Data storage and processing methods were immature: our solution was a typical client-server solution with proprietary applications
  • Ability and willingness of firms to use networked solutions for optimising operations was limited: in most cases, solutions were customised, and thus it was not possible to scale business
The situation is radically changing. The Internet and other new technologies open up a world of new business opportunities. This post outlines the opportunities from manufacturing industry point of view, focusing on companies´ product sales and customer relationships. Benefits, relating to e.g. company's own internal decision-making or improvement of internal efficiency, are not discussed here in detail.

Manufacturing industries meet the Internet

The physical world is becoming an information system. This change is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), sensor revolution or programmed world, among others. GE calls it the Industrial Internet. Regardless of the naming, sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects - from roadways to pacemakers - are linked through wired and wireless networks, which often (but not always) use the same Internet Protocol (IP) as the Internet. Vast amounts of data are sent through these networks to computers for analysis and the results are further submitted to users in an easily readable format.

There are number of factors driving the development, such as:
  • Availability of various types of sensors, growth of sensor use and sharply declining prices, caused by e.g. consumer product volumes and advances in material technologies
  • Development and standardisation of wireless communications technologies, such as 3G, WiFi, BT Smart and RFID
  • Development of Big Data storage and analysis technologies, especially driven by needs of consumer Internet services
  • Companies with strong interest in business model development and operations optimisation, based on realised benefits derived from the use of Internet tools
The core of the IoT is to use analytics for process automation, performance optimisation and downtime elimination, as well as to predict when a machine or component will fail. For industrial companies, this may indicate a threat or an opportunity. The threat is that the value of products will migrate to software, provided by other companies, thus endangering profitability of traditional product companies. A more sensible approach is to see the opportunities; in parallel with securing current product business, new value adding Industrial Internet offerings need to be developed.

The Industrial Internet is expected to see tremendous growth. Wikibon says that last year $ 20 billion were used in IoT technologies and the forecast for 2020 is $ 514 billion. Similarly, the Industrial Internet generated last year value of $ 23 billion, and in 2020 it is projected to reach $ 1279 billion. Looking this from another perspective, the Internet today is connected to a little more than 10 billion units. By 2020, the figure is 30 to 75 billion, depending on who is the predictor. The IoT is the biggest growth driver.

Regardless of whether above projections will be realised or not, huge business opportunities will be opening up. The key is to use existing and potential customer relationships and to create new solutions that are exploiting the Industrial Internet. This will also build competitive barriers against cheap equipment suppliers and create opportunities to maintain and further develop company's manufacturing competitiveness.

Business models for the Industrial Internet

To realise the potential of the IoT requires, besides new technology skills, also new business skills related to the Internet and its business models. This section first discusses various options for company business development and then presents four models of how the Industrial Internet can be used by a manufacturing company.

Development options

In principle, a company can develop both technical and business aspects of Industrial Internet solutions in-house, only recruiting necessary additional skills, if needed. Possible challenges here are the old models of thinking and the legacy in building new competences - the company makes too little and too late. Often used solution is to establish internal incubators, organised separate from day-to-day businesses. The incubators are able to develop and test new ideas before they are transferred to the responsibility of mainstream businesses. For example, Bosch has set up three innovation clusters: connected mobility, connected energy and connected building.

Capability building together with partners is a very viable option. Partners may be universities, research institutes and other companies. Especially with the latter, there are many models where traditional rivalry may in some areas be complemented with tight collaboration.

Mobile operators that are very active in the M2M space as solution providers, are natural partners among larger companies. Other prominent players include such companies as Cisco and Ericsson in communications, Intel in micro chips as well as IBM in software and services. Correspondingly, also the big Industrial Internet players are seeking cooperation. GE has made a substantial investment in EMC / VMware spin-off, Pivotal, a company that builds Big Data solutions. In the same area, GE has also announced collaboration with Amazon.

As in the development of the Internet in the past 20 years, startups are going to be a very important source of new ideas and innovation. Cooperation with startups can be anything from using their solutions to acquiring a startup. In this area too, GE has been very active by setting up a base in Silicon Valley and by kicking off a number of cooperation activities with startups.

There are plenty of startups working with sensors, Big Data and M2M, just to name a few. Besides sensor technologies and solutions, startups are also launching solutions to gather and aggregate sensor generated data. Storage, analysis and presentation of Big Data has spawned a number of new entrepreneurs. The traditional model of M2M startups has been seeking cooperation with mobile operators, but also other models are already being introduced in the market.

Improving product competitiveness

Improving competitiveness of a company´s products by increasing their life cycle revenues or by reducing their life cycle costs is probably the most common way to take advantage of the Industrial Internet. For customers this is realised through various value-adding services that are either a core part to utilise the product or supporting the product very strongly in some other way.

A good example is GE that embeds smart sensors in the jet engines and takes advantage of terabytes of data generated to optimise aircraft performance and the ways the engines are maintained. Konecranes TRUCONNECT services, on the other hand, contribute to crane safety, optimise maintenance costs and predict the needs of modernisation. An finally, Vesta support services assist customers to define optimal locations for windmills.

New business

It is also possible to build a completely new, independent business. Typical products are consisting of software that solve specific customer problems. Software may be able to control only the equipment provided by the firm, but it is often advantageous to create interfaces to other vendors´ products, too. In particular, for start-ups and businesses that account for only relatively small part of customer's installed base, this is often the only sensible strategy.

Bosch software products promise to integrate equipment with customers' business processes - equipment can be sourced from numerous manufacturers. The software can also be connected to various back-end systems from multiple vendors. GE has developed an application for power companies, which can be used to determine how to best build and operate turbines. Same kind of software are being developed for rail, mining, oil and gas companies.

New business model

Benefits of new business models - if successful - may be significant. The challenge of reaping the most dramatic benefits is that the development of new value chains requires key players´ support and it takes time to build these chains.

Real-time data generated by sensors, combined with historical data, makes it possible to analyse and predict with high precision use of equipment and machinery. This paves way for new business models, where manufacturers are charging for their products based on costs, revenues or time, whereas the conventional model relies on equipment or machinery purchase and maintenance.

Another example uses crowdsourcing to create added value for company's products. Ford is utilising open interfaces and allows in its OpenXC initiative to customise car features with add-on modules and applications. GE also relies on individual and startup innovation and value creation, and has launched measures to develop solutions for tackling air traffic delays and efficiency of hospital visits.

Marketing assistance

Although it would not be possible to create value-added products, totally new businesses or new business models, the Industrial Internet can significantly boost company's marketing and sales efforts. The main idea is to provide customers and other important stakeholders useful and interesting information, which will improve the competitive position of company's products. The key stakeholders are traditional and digital media, channel partners and influencers important to customers. In this context, the key source of information is the data generated by the products of the company or other data that the company can access at a reasonable cost.

Also the companies that sell to business customers cannot forget opinions of media and consumers: if corporate citizenship is not communicated properly, it will be quickly heard by customers´ decision-makers. If a company sells its products through channel partners, the partners will appreciate any information that helps them acquire new customers or any new opportunities to sell customers new services. Both for media and for customer advocates, it is important to get new information and insights that will enable them to further build their authority in the topic area. Well-thought, fact-based opinions based on available data are a great way to engage customers through media and advocates and thus support sales of company´s products.

For example, a car manufacturer could embed one more sensor to its cars: air pollution sensor would give a car user air quality information from those places that are important to him and give everyone an overview of air pollution situation. When used properly, this kind of activities can provide very interesting information for consumers and also for media, which creates good opportunities to highlight company's social responsibility. Cisco is strongly involved in even more ambitious project. Planetary Skin tends to use billions of sensors on land, water and in the air to detect and predict changes in the environment.

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