Making Sense of Industrial IoT Platforms

The battery problem in IIoT solutions

Our IIoT systems—and all of the disparate assets that contribute to them—are growing more complex. This is  a good thing. More capabilities. More connectedness. More gains. But as that complexity grows, so does the  need for overarching platforms to support the software and enable the people driving the digitalization efforts  to make sense of it all (and make money in doing so). This report will help.


Originally published in Smart Industry.

The First Barrier to IIoT: Too Many Batteries

Equipping objects with computing devices that enable them to transmit data over the internet has promised—for years—to revolutionize the way businesses operate and individuals live.  And although the IIoT is clearly affecting our personal lives—via smart phones, connected thermostats, wearable fitness trackers, and even water bottles that monitor our drinking habits—it has been slower to reach ubiquity than experts predicted, and far slower than expected to take hold among industrial businesses.

In 2012, IBM predicted 1 trillion connected devices by 2015.  We didn’t get close to that number.  In early 2017, Gartner forecast 50 billion devices by 2020, but even that prediction might be optimistic.  Electronic Component News has since estimated 25 billion IoT devices by 2020.  And according to a Cisco study, 61% of IT and business decision-makers admitted they had “barely scratched the surface” of what IoT could do for their companies.

If it has such game-changing potential, why have businesses been slow to deploy IoT technology? One reason has been the fact that powering the IoT revolution could demand 25 billion, or 50 billion, or 1 trillion batteries. That’s no small problem.

Let’s think through one of the implications of IBM’s trillion-device forecast.  That’s a trillion batteries needed to keep those trillion IoT sensors collecting, analyzing and sending data.  Now, let’s talk battery life.  A paper presented at the 2017 Kyoto Symposium on VLSI Circuits described new methods the industry is working on to extend battery life to 10 years for IoT devices.  In fact, the paper’s title is: “Reaching 10 Years of Battery Life for Industrial IoT Wireless Sensor Networks.”

Even if we assume the paper’s authors are correct in their prediction, and the industry eventually achieves its goal of a 10-year lifespan for the average IoT battery, guess how many batteries would need to be replaced every day in a trillion-device world?

273,972,603 batteries per day

Even worse, if industry falls short of that goal and delivers only a two-year battery lifespan, that means every person on the planet (all 7.4 billion) is changing a battery every five days.  In a best-case scenario, powering 1 trillion IoT devices would require replacing 274 million batteries every day.  And that’s assuming those batteries all reach their full 10-year life expectancies.

Clearly, this is not a feasible plan.

The Second Barrier: System Incoherence

Let’s explore another weakness inherent in most IIoT networks:  the lack of cohesion among the various components in IoT devices.

For an IoT network to work optimally, the entire ecosystem—wireless sensors, data capture/analytics tools, software—should be unified…designed at the system level to work as a unit.  Unfortunately, many IoT sensors are built with a component-level focus—pulling together disparate parts, made by different manufacturers and built with different specs and applications in mind.  This lack of system-level unification in IoT design falls short for two reasons:

number oneComponents will not all work to prolong battery life

Yep…the persistent battery problem.  This aspect of the problem involves a unique set of challenges.

With existing, commercially available parts, the combined energy needed to power all of a sensor’s operations—data sensing, processing, memory, wireless communication—necessitates a battery, particularly if this sensor is built using disparate components from different sources.

Some manufacturers are developing components for wireless IoT sensors billed as “ultra-low-power,”
and that’s great.  But when an end user pulls together a set of disparate components, we’re back to the battery problem.

The microcontroller might be built for low-power consumption, but what if the radio or temperature sensor or clock chip isn’t?  Ultimately, despite the burdensome integration effort, today’s available technology simply does not allow an end-user to build a useful, fully integrated sensor network that leaves the battery behind.

the number twoA Failure to Communicate

A sensor built on disparate components could lead to a suboptimal system. Another weakness in sensors built from disparate components is that these sensors often can’t effectively respond to the inevitable challenges an IoT network will face.

Imagine, for example, that within some of your wireless sensors the data-processing capability is becoming overloaded.  If your system is comprised of disparate, standalone hardware and software components that don’t communicate seamlessly with each other, you might have difficulty solving that problem—and you might not even be alerted that the issue exists.  The data-processing tools will simply continue working as hard as they can to meet the demand until they fail, and none of the other parts of your system will come to help.

Now imagine that your entire IoT network is built as a unified ecosystem—with all pieces designed to work together, from data acquisition to processing to analysis to transmission.

In this type of cohesive environment, you can much more easily modulate and adjust your system to meet your changing needs.  If some of your processors are becoming overloaded, the system can transfer some of the data-processing workload to less-taxed areas of the system.

The Two-Pronged Solution to IIoT: Batteryless Sensors + System-Level Design

Due in large part to the two related weaknesses we’ve discussed here—the need for batteries to power every IoT sensor, and the fact that most IoT networks aren’t built as cohesive systems—the current approaches to IIoT won’t allow the technology to scale cost-effectively, and will, in fact, create many ongoing challenges and costly setbacks over time.  What the industry needs, then, is a two-pronged solution to make IoT feasible for manufacturing and other industrial facilities.

Caution Symbol1st Barrier: We need to get rid of batteries

Batteries are often the limiting factor in how much and how cost-effectively an IoT infrastructure can scale.  True ubiquitous sensing will require devices that generate power through some means other than a built-in battery.  Consider the game-changing nature of being able to ramp up deployment of IoT sensors everywhere without the need to add, monitor or replace a single battery.

lightbulb icon with checkSolution

Self-powered sensors that can run indefinitely by harvesting energy from their immediate environment.

  • 50 billion IoT devices worldwide: 0 batteries needed
  • 1 trillion IoT devices worldwide: 0 batteries needed
  • Most importantly, your facility’s 10,000 IoT devices: 0 batteries needed

Caution Symbol2nd Barrier: We need a unified IoT ecosystem.

Once we have solved the battery problem, the next goal is to migrate away from the industry-standard approach of cobbling together an IoT infrastructure from a series of disparate pieces of hardware and software—and instead look for a unified, end-to-end system.

lightbulb icon with checkSolution

An out-of-the-box IoT platform that works as a seamless unit—from hardware to software, from data acquisition through data analysis.