Industrial IoT vs. consumer IoT: four key differences (Reality Check)
Although most ink dedicated to discussing the Internet of Things (IoT) has gone towards discussing the concept’s consumer variant, the industrial internet of things (IIoT) is beginning to capture significant attention for its role in helping manufacturers and industrial companies optimize processes and implement remote monitoring capabilities that would have been considered almost impossible just a decade ago.
But what exactly is the industrial IoT and what distinguishes it from consumer-oriented applications such as smart fridges and air conditioners?
Here are some important distinctions to help delineate the boundary between the consumer and industrial IoT ecosystems.
IIoT devices are built to be industrial strength
While a FitBit may get occasionally splashed in the rain and Amazon Dash buttons will likely come into contact with the products they are tracking, sensors destined for industrial deployment need to be able to survive environments that simply wouldn’t be encountered by consumers.
Such conditions include extremes in humidity and temperature as well as highly corrosive environments such as those encountered within wastewater infrastructure such as sewers. In addition, inline industrial IoT sensors that measure fluids like water and oil often need to be submerged within the liquids they are measuring. Such devices need to meet the gruelling industry waterproofing standard set down by the IP68 certification. Devices also often need to be HazLoc certified to prove that they can withstand explosive and combustible environments.
IIoT systems must be designed for scalability
Deploying complex water monitoring systems with hundreds of midpoints and endpoints spread over hundreds of kilometers is a far more complex endeavour than even the most ambitious of consumer home automation projects.
Because IIoT systems can result in the generation of billions of datapoints, consideration also has to be afforded to the means of transmitting the information from the sensors to their final destination – usually an industrial control system such as a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) platform. In order to not overwhelm these centralized systems with data, IIoT manufacturers are increasingly devising hardware that can carry out preliminary analytics directly at the device-level rather than on a program running in a cloud-based server (an emergent methodology known as edge computing.) Consumer IoT applications naturally tend to involve fewer devices and data points. Minimizing throughput to central servers is therefore less of a concern.
IIoT devices have unique communications and power requirements
IIoT sensors are often installed to measure parameters at remote infrastructure that is difficult to physically access. Such infrastructure can be situated below the surface (for example, at oil and gas facilities), atop high terrain (for example, at water reservoirs), offshore (for example, on oil wells), or even in a remote stretch of desert not accessible by roadway (at a weather station).
Deploying technicians to inspect these assets is difficult and expensive. To minimize the amount of field visits required, IIoT devices need to be engineered to have the maximum possible battery life, which is often achieved by building them with industrial-grade batteries. IIoT’s unique, low-power, low bandwidth requirements have spurred the development of a series of nascent network families such as LPWAN and NB-IoT that are the primary means of connecting these devices to central servers. These are engineered precisely with IOT devices’ needs in mind, which are not addressed adequately by either cellular networks (which offer high bandwidths and therefore excessively taxing on batteries) and protocols such as WiFi and Bluetooth (which are not scalable).
To provide the maximum possible communications redundancy, such gateways must be configured to support both IoT-specific and more conventional networking technologies such as WiFI and Bluetooth. Mixing these aboard the same device is a challenge for hardware engineers.
Because of the critical nature of the activities they control, and the fact that they are often not readily accessible by a human operator, IIoT devices are regularly required to be fully remotely controllable, have minimal response times, and house built-in watchdog timers to ensure that the systems automatically reboot in the event of a system hang.
Consumer products, on the other hand, are generally located in easily accessible locations and can therefore often avail of either fixed sources of power or conventional, consumer-grade batteries.
The IIoT must meet unique cyber-security standards
Cyber-security is an important challenge facing the Internet of Things (IoT) with 70% of the most commonly used IoT devices containing vulnerabilities, according to Hewlett Packard research.
Hacking smart home installations could have important repercussions for personal privacy, if an attacker were to obtain, for example, a live video feed of a customer’s property. The network intrusion, however, would be local. Should the same fate befall Industrial IoT systems, which are often tasked with connecting sensors to critical infrastructure resources such as power plants and water management facilities, the potential repercussions are an order of magnitude more severe (the Stuxnet worm provides a good illustration). Because of this, IIoT installations must need to meet far more demanding cybersecurity requirements before installations are approved for use.
The IIoT also involves integrating information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) systems such as PLC controllers, which have somewhat diverging cybersecurity best practices. Consumer IoT systems, by comparison, only need to interface with relatively simplistic control mechanisms on consumer devices.
IIoT Solutions Must be Granular
Unlike even sophisticated mass-market IoT products such as smart washing machines, IIoT solutions often need to be white-labelled and tailored to the individual usage requirements of the purchaser. For that reason, IIoT technologies are often made available to consumers through a variety of means that allow heightened customization and integration with other software systems. This includes APIs or Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings. By contrast, applications for the consumer market are often markedly more limited in their customization and functionalities.
Although both the consumer and industrial IoTs connect physical devices to the internet, they differ significantly in several aspects.
From a development and commercial rollout standpoint, they increasingly appear to be parallel ecosystems with significant overlap but also marked differences, players, and innovations.
Some of the most salient features distinguishing the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) from the consumer version are its need for ruggedized hardware devices, the unique connectivity and power requirements its use-cases require, and its more onerous requirements for advanced cyber-security and granularity.