We are now in the era of Industry 4.0 – the fourth industrial revolution – ushering in autonomous smart cars, robots that can perform tasks with impressive efficiency, and 3D printing. The SmartThings Living Future report created by a group of academics and futurologists recently launched its vision of the future depicting 3D printed food, underwater ‘bubble’ cities and the colonisation of the Moon and Mars. However, the technology behind this can only develop as fast as their previous incarnations allow: it has to be built on solid foundations.

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Innovating is a difficult task – it wouldn’t be innovating if it was easy. There are countless examples of innovations with the best intentions that have fallen flat on their faces. Universal product codes and electronic data interchange are examples of this. However, this pales in insignificance next to the inability to agree common standards. Connectivity is the cornerstone of Industry 4.0. It is dependent on interoperability; devices and systems that are able to communicate with one another. Developing multiple standards leads to fragmentation that is a huge barrier that will restrict the potential of Industry 4.0. To use a consumer analogy, it’s like having a connected home with an automated ordering service where your fridge is operating on a different OS. The central hub can’t gather information on whether the fridge needs to replenish juice supplies, and the system doesn’t work. Closed systems just don’t work.

In order to unlock the potential of IoT, this will rely heavily on interoperability and the ability to address the same old challenges. Tech giants who have spent so long building up these walls will have to play nicely together to agree standards, using open source frameworks to enable innovation between them and other innovators.

The Industrial IoT Opportunity

Industry 4.0 involves the computerisation of machinery and automation using robotics, as well as the intelligent measurement and analysis of data to improve efficiency, profitability and safety. Third party sources predict that global investment in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will reach $500 billion by 2020. Companies that introduce automation and more flexible production techniques to manufacturing can boost productivity by as much as 30 per cent. Plus predictive maintenance of assets can save companies up to 12 per cent over scheduled repairs, reduce overall maintenance costs by up to 30 per cent and eliminate breakdowns by 70 per cent.

These automation technologies will be driven by advanced sensors, big data technologies and intelligent machine applications that will harvest contextual data, manage, analyse and serve it back to the user or device as relevant information, all in real time. Look at the proliferation of mobile devices using intelligent software, traditional computers, big data servers, and IoT devices – you then have a picture of the magnitude of contextual data available. While the IIoT is still in its infancy, its ability to evolve will depend on how well this explosion in data is integrated and served across an ecosystem of devices.

Let History’s Mistakes be Today’s Lessons

Each ‘industrial revolution’ to date has failed to lay the groundwork that will successfully solve the challenges of data and device interoperability – even as far back as railway gauges in the first industrial revolution. The upshot of this is that there is a real danger of the industry trying to run before it can walk.

To avoid this, foundational integration challenges should first be addressed. Businesses still struggle to integrate their ERP with other core business applications due to the shift from batch to real-time integration so as to provide outbound data from the ERP to other systems. Many universal product codes that track trade items in stores are still not fully integrated with the customer journey data and profile, meaning that it’s harder to offer personalised offers based on preferences. Additionally, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) – the abilities for companies to exchange documents electronically – has still not been resolved as message formats are still not standardised.

With this all considered, the interoperability challenge still looms large. There is a lack of interoperability between devices and machines that use different protocols and have different architectures. There is a reason for this. The technology giants who drove web innovation, such as Google and Apple, want to keep control. This desire for control has led to other OEMs and partners following suit, creating their own standards for the development of applications based on proprietary operating systems or devices, which results in vendor lock-in. This represents a massive problem for ubiquity: a lack of common standards with popular devices and systems that do not share data with each other if they are not all connected within the same ecosystem.

Technology giants need to find a way of cooperating that doesn’t threaten IP while also building a mutually beneficial open standard that encourages collaboration from a developer perspective. It’s the tech giants that have the power to ensure that the IIOT will still foster innovation and collaboration.

Open Architectures and Web Languages: the Perfect Cocktail

Open technologies in an open architecture will go some way to helping businesses learn and develop systems that integrate. These include new open technology frameworks like NativeScript and React Native that help developers to develop IIoT apps that will work across systems and have the ability to share data across them all.

Businesses should encourage IIOT developers to use Web languages to scale applications across any device or platform. JavaScript, a popular Web language, is the only language that runs on every single platform. It is the only true “write once, run everywhere” language. Whether that’s directly on a JavaScript engine, or as an abstraction to native languages, the important part is that the language that the actual business logic is coded in stays the same.

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Collaborate or Die

If the tech industry continues with this walled garden approach, we’ll never see the benefits that Industry 4.0 promises. Open and secure technologies are crucial in providing the foundations to deliver higher productivity and cost savings that industry craves. It is a case of ‘he who collaborates wins’, and the ones who do today will be tomorrow’s winners.