We now have the ability, at least in theory, to track almost everything, almost all the time. However, to convert this ability to something useful and hence justifiable on the basis of economics, health, safety, etc. requires the ability to link the data to something—an asset—so in effect, without asset management, the only reason for IoT and IIoT is a computing science exercise. Obviously, with all the efforts in these areas, there is a reward to be found.
At their most basic, IoT or IIoT and clouds are simply ways to better manage more assets at higher granularity. IoT technologies provide the ability to connect “everything” at minimal incremental investment, while clouds and data mining provide the storage and search capability, so rather than only keeping track of large items due to cost constraints, we are now able track the elements that form the large items. So, we can minimize the lifecycle cost to build, operate and maintain, and can replace at the opportune time.
The tracking element of these technologies has been around for some time and all of us now take for granted the widespread use of RFID based systems to follow a wide range of "things" such as:
• Using badges to open a door for access into and hence an indication of your presence in or out of the office (no more time sheets);
• Monitoring the location of personnel in a facility for safety reasons;
• Tracking inventory: Walmart is known for using technology to keep tabs on pallets of goods, and many organizations use wireless systems to monitor larger tools and equipment (other techniques are used for lower-cost tools, including vending machines as tool cribs);
• Tags for your stuff from shipments to pets and even children, so you can keep track of whatever or whoever at all times;
• Luggage: Hong Kong airport has been using RFID baggage tracking for more than a decade now, even for bags that are transiting through the facility as it is more accurate than traditional laser scanners.
With the increased capabilities of the tags and receivers at lower cost, it is now feasible to track ever smaller items. The goal will be to track the individual elements in manufacturing and fabrication of a product from source to shelf and back to recycle/reuse.
In fact, asset lifecycle tracking is now being mandated in some countries, most notably the European Community (EC), where batteries have been tracked from cradle to grave for about a decade now. (Another example of, depending on your perspective, either intended or unintended consequences, because manufacturers are now using more non-volatile memory or capacitors instead of a battery back-up for power interruptions.) Batteries are typically tracked with the product or serial number for now, but if the cost for the tag and infrastructure get low enough, or incorporated in the manufacturing process itself, this may change—and likely will at some point.
The signal or identifier for the item is only one side of the equation, the associated database(s) to keep track of them is the other. The IEC, for one, has been working on this for a number of years, the result being the IEC 61987 series of documents. The developers of this document series are defining all the properties for the specification, configuration and operation of individual control devices and classes into the Common Data Dictionary (CDD). Once these properties and parameters are all defined, it will be possible to use these definitions to connect through the CDD to transfer any parameter to any database or platform, regardless of manufacturer. One element necessary for open Asset Management and Industrie 4.0 will be this ability to access and view the resulting data in a meaningful, platform-independent way—hence the work in this area, and as I have said many times before, the need for standards.
IoT and IIoT are not just about connecting everything to everything else. The entire effort requires the ability to know what each of the things are, what it is capable of doing, and how it relates to the other things around it. Asset management keeps track of what the things are and what they are capable of doing, and therefore is a critical part of the equation.