The Fourth Industrial Revolution is about connectivity, data and analytics – taking the infrastructure you already have, and making it work faster and smarter. By Stephen Bovis.

Australian businesses in the manufacturing, transport and logistics industry are seeking new ways to connect processes to more accurately capture analytics and use data insights to improve workflow from the factory floor to the store shelf.

One way to harness the connected network is through the Internet of Things (IoT), and connecting existing physical hardware to an edge computing system to collect and analyse data.

The nuts and bolts of IoT

IoT isn’t one plug-and-play solution. It’s an interconnected network of sensors and data collection that helps make the most of company-owned devices.

Installing IoT sensors into your business can drastically change the way your hardware works. For instance, if you have a production centre, its primary purpose would be to create products. But with the right IoT implementation, every machine in the centre can have a secondary purpose – to feed you data, and improve your business.

Businesses across industries such as construction, manufacturing, healthcare, mining and agriculture are already using IoT sensors to measure and analyse their performance data. For the manufacturing industry, these sensors could monitor the performance of a worksite machine and provide data that can be used to make it more efficient. In a 2018 study, PWC and the Australian Computer Society suggested that by implementing IoT sensors, the manufacturing, construction, healthcare, mining and agriculture industries stand to gain an annual saving of $194bn-$308bn. The manufacturing industry alone sits to gain $50bn-$88bn from implementing IoT.

Gartner recently highlighted that businesses are only making use of 6% of their data, meaning 94% is lost or unused. Much of this is happening in edge cases, where the data source is furthest away from the home base. That’s why Hewlett Packard Enterprises globally has been looking at how edge computing can give businesses better access to their remote data sources, without the expense of building remote servers.

The challenge for most businesses comes in the implementation of these data solutions. Sure, you might run a warehouse and think IoT sensors can help you manage stock levels and highlight periods of congestion, but what’s the best way to install them, and how do you capitalise on that data?

Produce, analyse, improve, repeat

Once your business is producing terrabytes of data, the next challenge is data distribution and storage. For many businesses, running massive data centres to collate and analyse all that data isn’t practical; that’s where edge computing comes in.

Gartner analysts predict that in six years, 75% of enterprise data will be generated and processed outside of data centres. But it turns out that transferring sensor data to the cloud (and back) is slow, expensive, and can be insecure. At the edge of the network, which can be anywhere, bandwidth is often scarce and intermittent and it’s expensive to transmit large volumes of data through the network to the cloud.

That’s what we mean by ‘the edge’. It’s anywhere the data is being produced, be it a factory floor, an oil rig or a storefront – and an edge IoT system takes the data produced there and provides the tools to analyse it on site.

Early concepts of the new decentralisation paradigm said we need a stopover – called a “cloudlet” – to not only sort and forward, but process data right at the edge. Today, these cloudlets are often represented by mini, micro and edge data centres; small, rugged form factors equipped with cooling and uninterruptable power supplies.

Edge systems must maintain a small physical size, while possessing the power to run full enterprise versions of IoT applications, analytics and data management identical to the software running in a data centre. But enterprise-level IT at the edge is not enough. Converging the systems with both the operational technology (OT) and the information technology (IT) is a necessary next step.

Bridging the gap between OT and IT

The convergence of OT and IT supports making physical processes as flexible, intelligent and autonomous as if they were virtual processes. Edge systems are the bridgehead of this convergence. An IT position that enables intelligent operations on OT territory. Sensor data shows businesses where and how to make improvements, so that businesses can be more efficient and effective.

Setting up and running a complete edge system of this type is highly complex because it requires the orchestration of a large number of different components. For example, industrial systems with sensors and control systems; drivers, adapters and middleware for bidirectional communication between OT and IT systems; and standard IT applications at the edge, in the data centre, and in the cloud.

But the reward is in finding more efficient ways of working, and creating a more agile business that is able to adapt to new challenges and improve as needed. By connecting your physical hardware to sensors and measuring the data produced, every manufacturing business has the opportunity to improve workflow, productivity and eventual products.

Stephen Bovis is the Vice-President and Managing Director for Hewlett Packard Enterprise South Pacific.