IIoT is Great—But Don’t Forget About the Humans

If you’re an IT or communications technology professional, most likely you’ve read more than one article recently about the Industrial Internet of Things. Certainly your customers have. IIoT is a hot topic, and even if it turns out to be half as big as the analyst community predicts, it will still be huge. Everyone knows that IIoT is going to substantially change the manufacturing, critical infrastructure, and processing industries, but it may be surprising to learn that Unified Communications (UC) can add important functionality, and value, to IIoT implementations.

At first blush, it’s hard to see any connections between a VoIP/SIP Call Controller (i.e., REDCOM’s Sigma® Core), and sensor networks, edge gateways, Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications, and analysis of “Big Data”—these all being major blocks of the IIoT. In IIoT terabytes of data are analyzed for patterns, trends, correlations, anomalies, etc. so that processes can run more efficiently and safely—but what does this have to do with UC? Machines talk to other machines—so who needs a human in the loop?

It’s true that much of the communication occurring in a “connected factory” does not involve people. One benefit of automation/M2M is that it minimizes human communication problems (error-proneness, distraction, fatigue, etc.) related to operations. But when serious, complex problems arise, as they always do even in modern, high-tech manufacturing and processing facilities, only Human-to-Human (“H2H”) communication technology is effective in solving them. This is because only humans can readily discern the context in which to process new information; IBM’s Watson can beat anybody in “Jeopardy”, but wouldn’t have a clue how to win at “The Price is Right”.

It’s usually easier to notice the presence of something than the absence of it. But as I digested increasing quantities of web content on IIoT technologies and solutions, it started to occur to me that, with but one or two exceptions, IIoT platform vendors and service providers are not offering H2H “back-ends” with their solutions.  Yes, they offer event processing capability and alerting, but nothing in the way of the powerful IP-based UC functionality that is available today.  As such, the full value of IIoT is not being realized.

Here’s a use case for Sigma Core that enhances the value of IIoT with H2H technology.

Use Case: Incident Response

  • A complex process to produce a hazardous chemical is being conducted in a modern plant
  • A sensor network is in place, reporting on thousands of parameters associated with the hundreds of equipment components used in the process
  • Thought has been given to predefining events that merit immediate, focused collaboration to manage. These types of events, usually composed of multiple lower-level events occurring close together in time, are termed “incidents”
  • Every incident has associated with it a Distribution List of response personnel; these people are the Subject Matter Experts and practicing professionals in disciplines such as engineering, maintenance, emergency response/hazmat etc. Senior corporate executives could also be on DLs for extremely serious “Code Red” incidents
  • Incidents and their associated DLs are coded into event processing software residing on an IIoT edge gateway or other computing platform on the network
  • The same, or another edge gateway hosts Sigma Core
  • An incident occurs, detected by event processing software. In this case: near-simultaneous failure of a vacuum pump and two chillers in the line
  • The event processing software on the IIoT edge gateway outputs an email (or another message form) to Sigma Core
  • Sigma Core (which incorporates a full URI translator/router) parses the email via Lua scripting and initiates pre-defined actions. In this case, everyone on the DL for that incident is immediately texted that “Incident X has just occurred—expect phone call in 60 seconds.” Next, everyone on the DL gets a call that when answered places them in a voice conference. There is no need to dial into a conference bridge and enter passcodes
  • The value in the conference call is that key personnel need not be physically in the plant to assist with the triage and management/solving of the condition or problem. (An expert might also be a vendor or consultant who would rarely be on site.)
  • The context-providing text message and subsequent conference call would go to the deskphone, smartphone, tablet, or any other specified endpoint of each conferee.

Note that incident response and management begins immediately. The traditional serial (slow) response and management process has been replaced by the instant creation of a problem-solving environment, saving time, money, and in the case of very serious incidents, possibly even lives.

It just makes sense to add enhanced incident response capability (enabled by Sigma Core’s embedded Unified Communications technology) to your IIoT required features list. Count the inclusion and enablement of human problem-solving skills as a big plus when you are justifying your next IIoT project.