Are the visions getting in the way of reality?

  • May 9, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

Steve Rogerson looks at a recent report that suggests some in the industrial sector are turning their backs on IoT.

Ubisense report on IoT in manufacturing

We have all seen the visions of futuristic cities with everything connected and autonomous vehicles taking us left, right and centre, robots cleaning the streets, flying cars and so on, all that once would have been standard for a science fiction film but are now being touted as serious possibilities.

And there is justification. Technology being deployed today can be seen as stepping stones towards those visions. But there is a downside, and that is that those dreams are so far from the reality of what the IoT can do in the here and now that some are turning their backs on the technology.

This is proving to be particularly true in the industrial sector where the harsh realities of manufacturing, where real people do real jobs, seem nothing like the vision. And, as such, many in manufacturing see the IoT as something that is just not for them.

Now, with all the hype about the IoT, some may be somewhat sceptical about this, and I would suggest they therefore cast their eyes over a recent survey that found an alarming 43% of manufacturers no longer understand the value of the IoT. This is worrying to say the least, even more so given that just a year ago, a similar survey had the figure at 29%.

The survey was carried out by Arlington Research on behalf of Ubisense, a UK company that specialises in sensors for tracking people and objects inside buildings. The research was based on interviews with 300 managers and executives in the industrial sectors in the USA, UK, France and Germany.

So what has gone wrong? I put this question to Steven Manifold, chief marketing officer at Ubisense. He blames the visions.

Steven Manifold

“The vendors in the IoT space have spent a lot of time painting the practice of IoT as something futuristic, but that is at odds with the practical side of manufacturing,” he said. “There are a lot of practical things that can be done right now, but the vendors have moved on. They should be talking about practical examples of what can be done now.”

This is not helped when we see pictures of car plants with robots building shiny vehicles on production lines almost totally devoid of human beings. Outside the automotive industry, in factories all around the world, a lot of what goes on is still manual.

“They are full of people doing manual tasks,” said Manifold. “They are not all like the automotive robot plants. We need to look at how to make these manual tasks easier, how we can deploy the technology to them.”

He called for practical examples of the technology used in real factories to be brought to light.

“Organisations think of themselves as being unique, but a lot of what they do is applicable across a lot of industries and that message needs to be got across,” he said.

He admitted that part of the results of the survey could be attributed to a peculiar year that hopefully has now an end in sight. If companies have factories closed due to the pandemic, then the last thing on their minds is deploying new technology. This is a little ironic given that much of the technology if in place a year ago could have helped those same companies keep going.

And the pandemic did open up some opportunities. Early conversations, Manifold said, with companies looking at using IoT technology for tracking people in workplaces to enable social distancing and the like quickly morphed into a more general discussion on worker safety.

“If I can see if people are too close together, I can also see if they are in unauthorised areas,” he said. “Or I can see if unqualified people are too close to machinery. Some are making this connection. People also see predictive maintenance as a real benefit, so they haven’t written off the IoT completely. There is a fear of missing out.”

Manifold thus hopes that the report highlights short-term disillusion rather than long-term disinterest and that the lost year does not turn into a much longer term lost opportunity for manufacturing. For that to happen, maybe it is time to keep the futuristic visions under wraps for now and concentrate on human beings drilling holes in metal.