How a Coke Machine and the Industrial Internet of Things Can Give Birth to a Planetary Computer

CMU’s connected Coke machine

Sometime in 1982, a seemingly innocuous conversation occurred in the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Computer Science Department. Programmers logging long hours in the labs were frustrated by their long walks to the Coke machine, only to find it empty or, much worse, filled with warm soda.

You see, around the halls of CMU, caffeine wasn’t just a substance, it was a driving force. Something needed to be done about these errant trips to the machine.

Soon, conversation spun into action. The CMU Coke machine was filled with a number of microswitches and connected to the Internet. And soon, its contents and their temperatures could be found by anyone who could reach the IP address:

Although it didn’t seem like much at the time, the moment CMU’s Coke machine came online, the Internet of Things (IoT) was born. Within a generation and a half, IoT would transform into the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and become a driving force for business and manufacturing innovation across the globe.

What Is the IIoT?

IIot2IIoT (sometimes referred to as “Industry 4.0”) was first coined as a way to talk about the union of big data, machine-to-machine communications, machine learning and sensor information. The kernel of the IIoT idea was that the more sensors you could pack into a machine, the more valuable data you could get about its performance. Over time, tracking this data could give engineers insight into the performance of a machine and when it needed to be serviced, exchanged or reloaded with material, among other things.

Expanding this vision out a bit further, a manufacturing landscape filled with sensor-laden machines could link warehouses with manufacturing facilities and shippers in a seamless electronic conversation.

Today, the vision of IIoT has extended well beyond its initial idea and the notion that it would be a manufacturing-side enterprise. Most proponents of IIoT see a future where all types of machines and sensors, whether they’re industrial or consumer, are communicating with one another. This can offer predictive prescriptions and solutions to problems such as downtime, supply shortages and overages, consumer demand and much more.

What Are the Benefits of the IIoT?

IIot3.pngAlthough increased operational efficiency is one of the principle benefits of a broad IIoT, the paradigm might also have other knock-on effects across industries that aren’t immediately apparent. One of the biggest impacts IIoT may have is that it will force companies to develop products in a different manner, focusing on software and experiences rather than product redesigns.

Today, consumers aren’t as interested in buying new models of products as they were in the past. Instead, they want a product that will grow with them and provide an evolving experience that can be updated and upgraded via software as time passes. With the IIoT, companies will be able to read more into consumer demands by reaching the data being generated by consumer sensors. This data can then be translated into product innovation. As companies become better adapted to this manner of product development, updates and upgrades may start to appear faster and faster. It might even be possible for companies to understand their customer’s wants so well that they can develop new user-specific product lines for more immersive and satisfying experiences.

Heading back the industrial space, IIoT could spark a change in the way humans and machines interact with one another, bringing them closer and shattering the notion that “the robots have arrived to vanquish the human workforce.”

According to the World Economic Forum’s analysis of the IIoT in 2015, human-machine workforce collaboration will be a key factor in improving workplace safety and diminishing workplace errors and more. According to the report:

“This new blend of labor combines human flexibility and contextual decision-making with robots’ precision and consistency to deliver better output. With its recent acquisition of Kiva Systems, for example, Amazon now operates one of the world’s largest fleets of industrial robots in its warehouses, where humans and robots work side by side, capable of fulfilling orders up to 70 percent faster than a nonautomated warehouse. While robots perform picking and delivery, human workers spend more time on overall process improvements such as directing lower volume products to be stored in a more remote area.”

In another example of successful human-machine interaction, the World Economic Forum’s report highlights how Marathon Oil employees working at its refineries wear multigas sensors that detect any exposure to harmful chemicals. With these sensors constantly moving around the facility, plant managers can get a high-resolution picture of the air quality and safety of the refinery. If levels of gas become dangerous, workers can be evacuated from an area quickly. Because of the machines they wear on their bodies, Marathon’s employees are much safer.

What Are the Hurdles for IIoT?

The first large hurdle before the IIoT is breaking down the language and protocol barriers that exist between machines. Due to the fact that manufacturing systems have always been developed in proprietary silos, it’s often the case that interoperability between differing machines is difficult. Creating a translator for machines, or a universal standard language for machine communication, will be critical for the IIoT.

Although a universal language for machines is a major hurdle to the success of the IIoT, that task is dwarfed by the need for incredibly tight security. If the Stuxnet controversy of yesteryear is a bellwether of what hackers can do with an industrial system, then I can image the likes of the oil and gas industry, utility companies, medical facilities and others will do much more than tap the breaks on IIoT if there’s even a hint of cyber insecurity.

With that in mind, its incumbent on those developing IIoT to build robust, multilevel security features, system checks and the like into the DNA of the project.

Finally, data propriety could also be an issue for those braving the early IIoT wilderness.

If the idea behind IIoT is to improve customer outcomes, production cycles and decision-making by leveraging massive amounts of data, it makes sense that companies may have to develop new methods for sharing data with other firms. This might mean that new encryption technologies, business models and hardware need to be developed to facilitate a broad exchange of data. It’s possible that third-party businesses might pop up to facilitate this type of trusted communication between firms, but if not, the prospect of developing or joining a robust IIoT infrastructure could appear exceptionally daunting to companies large and small.

Where’s the Industrial Internet Headed?

IIot4.pngAt the moment, the industrial Internet is still in a protean phase, and there are a number of concerns that surround the project. But in a few years, we might begin to see glimpses of what Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, described as a “sensor-aware planetary computer.”

Although that notion may still seem fairly blue sky, just take a second and look around you. Imagine how many devices in your home, office or even pocket are loaded with sensors capable of sending information back to complex machines and analytic engines. With that type of granular data available to industrial, civic and commercial interests, it’s only a matter of time before Smarr’s idea becomes good and the industrial Internet becomes a fluid machine delivering goods and services and possibly innovation on a perfectly scheduled basis.

What’s even more incredible is that all of this—the machine intelligence, the cross-industrial connections, the ability to control devices from half a planet away—all came about for the want of a cold Coke.

About the Author


Kyle Maxey is a mechanical designer and writer from Austin, TX. He earned a degree in Film at Bard College and has since studied Mechanical and Architectural drafting at Austin Community College. As a designer Kyle has had vast experience with CAD software and rapid prototyping. One day he dreams of becoming a toy designer.

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