According to Wikipedia, in 1982 Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh installed a Coke machine in one of its buildings. Not just any Coke machine, of course, but a modified one that became the first appliance ever connected to the Internet, such as it was at that time. From this connection one could remotely monitor the vending machine’s inventory and the temperature of the drinks it held. 

During the next decade and more, the concept and usefulness of connecting things to the Internet gained the attention of researchers, developers and, finally, the business community. As the concept of connecting to the Internet took hold, so too did the concept of connecting things to each other. 

In 1999, Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, presented device-to-device communications at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Around that time, the term “Internet of things” was attributed to Kevin Ashton of Procter & Gamble, who viewed radio-frequency identification (RFID) as essential to the Internet of things system, which would allow computers to manage individual things. 

Years later, somewhere between 2008 and 2009, Cisco Systems estimated that there were more things than people connected to the Internet. Some analysts say that the number of things connected to the Internet has already exceeded the number of people on the planet by far.

Thus, we arrive at what we now call the Internet of Things (IoT), whose definition continues to evolve along with the electronic and communications technologies that support it. In its simplest form, the IoT is the connecting of any device you can turn on and off to the Internet or to another device. In reality, things are more complex than that. 

As access to broadband networks goes up, the cost of this access goes down, and as cellphone penetration marches toward global universality, we can all expect the paradigm shift toward “smart” gadgetry to continue at a rapid pace. Consumers see this as smart lighting, energy-management systems, security cameras, video doorbells and smart entertainment systems to name but a few things. 

Of particular interest to readers of this column is how the technologies that enable and drive the IoT can be integrated into industrial, particularly manufacturing, settings. Manufacturing has entered the age of machinery that can keep track of itself and share data with management that can diagnose (and sometimes heal) itself when it is about to break down or require preventive maintenance; that can give us “eyes” through videography in remote places; that can collect mountains of data; and that can communicate with other machines and people. Collectively, these machines can streamline our manufacturing processes and make them more efficient and responsive to customer and market demands.

Of course, there is a downside to all this. Explosive growth in the IoT gives rise to privacy, security and cybersecurity issues that can plague smart devices and networks. Many IoT systems are largely unregulated and vulnerable to all sorts of digital hacking and a myriad of inadvertent or criminally motivated breaches. Let the buyer beware.

This rapidly growing subsegment of the IoT is called the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). IIoT is here to stay and, in my view, every manager and business operator in this industry should stay aware of, and plan on investing in, smart machinery and devices as the need arises. These can streamline and better define your organization’s manufacturing capabilities.