The contents were published from July 2015 to February 2016 on "Nikkei Technology Online", the engineering information website run by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc., and reprinted with the author's permission.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to transform society, and as the concept is implemented in various sectors, the role played by electronic devices will continue to increase. Professor Hiroyuki Morikawa of the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo, a leader in IoT development in Japan, spoke with Satoshi Sawamura, president of ROHM Co., Ltd., about the future outlook for IoT, and the role that electronic device manufacturers will play in assisting its widespread adoption.
- Hiroyuki Morikawa, Ph.D.
Many people seem to think that IoT is a new trend, but the same concept has been with us for quite some time already, in the form of the shift toward information technology (IT) and digital data. Until recently, though, IT and digital data have been used to boost productivity. With the new nickname, IoT, there is also a new role, namely as tools to create new value. And that is a major change.
I think the acronym IoT covers the usage of IT and digital data in an even wider range of applications. The word "things" covers an awful lot of ground, and a lot of people in a lot of fields are now aware of the potential IoT offers.
IoT is expected to significantly change society. As the range of application expands it will create a host of new business opportunities. IoT touches an enormous variety of technologies, however, and it would be impossible for any single firm to handle them all. Rohm thinks of how it can best contribute to IoT, and apply its strengths to resolving society's problems.
Massive volumes of data from the real world are collected in the cloud via the Internet, processed, and the results used to control and optimize systems in the real world. I think that the basic concept of IoT-based work. Rohm can make a contribution in the interface between the real world and cyberspace, when data is uploaded.
B2B takes the lead in POTS-type IoT
There are two major directions of activity in IoT today, which we generally refer to as the "smartphone" and "POTS" groups. Smartphone refers to something like a Silicon Valley-type start-up developing cutting-edge products and services, more often directed at consumers. The other direction is POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service), which is slowly and quietly implementing IoT into existing corporate systems. We call it POTS because it's still "wired up" to so many business sites, and that IoT implementation is pretty much invisible to society. It will dramatically change society, people's lives, and the way we do business.
For example, one example already in practical use in the US is the "smart trashcan." It detects the amount of trash inside, and uses wireless to notify the center when full. The truck comes and empties it when called. The general public can't see the IoT technology, and the trashcan is still a trashcan, but this type of system will unquestionably change the way things are done.
The perfect opportunity to enter a new market
- Satoshi Sawamura
The shiny new smartphone-type IoT implementations always get the media coverage, but I think the POTS applications will have the greater effect on society. And the companies most effective in POTS-type business are the B2B (business-to-business) companies, not the new ventures.
Rohm began as a resistor manufacturer in 1958, and has always held quality as the first priority. Semiconductor devices account for about 90% of our business today, and we are gradually boosting the weight of the automatic industry within revenues while actively developing the industrial equipment field. If IoT achieves widespread adoption in industrial equipment and the infrastructure, then people will be more interested in out IoT solutions, and we will be able to get involved in more new businesses from the ground floor.
One very important point in constructing an IoT system is following the key commandment: standardize. There are already a number of established and de facto standard in IoT, and it is crucial that implementation be done properly across the board.
The POTS approach is slow and steady; when do you think the IoT implementations will really begin to make themselves felt?
Evolving over three or four decades
It will take quite some time for IoT to become an integral part of society, I think, but already more and more companies are investing into related fields as the IoT concept spreads. Personally, I think it will take 30 or 40 years to real full-scale IoT implementation.
The railroad was an exciting, innovative concept in Britain in about 1840, and many companies made investments into it as a cutting-edge technology. In fact, though, the "Golden Age" of rail in Great Britain didn't come until 30 or 40 years later.
The same thing happened with automobiles and household appliances, for example. It has been said that the market distortion caused by sudden interest in automobiles and household appliances was actually one factor in causing the Great Depression of 1929. Electric household appliances and automobiles didn't actually become commonplace elements in society until the 1950s or 60s.
I think the interest in IoT began with the sudden rise in popularity of Internet-related technology in about 2000. The collapse of the subprime market in 2008 made things very tough for the IT market for a while, but I think society is trending toward IoT, and we'll see full-scale implementation in 30 or 40 years.
It may take many years, but I don't think there's any doubt about the changes IoT will bring. If a system can be developed, for example, to continually monitor ground motion, it will be possible to minimize landslide damage. It will become possible to prevent many infrastructural accidents, such as the collapse of ageing tunnels or bridges. Our factories will change significantly. Constant monitoring on equipment status, environment, and other factors will help detect signs of immanent abnormalities and failures, helping prevent production line stoppages by fixing problems before they occur. And if factories that don't stop can be achieved, it will yield a big change in the manufacturing business.
IoT creates new added value
Medicine will change, too, because data that your have to go to the hospital to have measured now will instead be measured at home or at the office. There will be a shift from reactive medicine—going to see the doctor after you get sick—to proactive medicine, which will treat the problem before it becomes serious.
Basically, IoT improves productivity and creates value. Most IoT applications can also be performed manually, by human beings, but the introduction of IoT creates new, added value. The IoT revolution is coming, but since a lot of it will be in places most people don't feel directly, I don't think the IoT revolution will have the impact that the Internet revolution did.
Already IoT systems are being quietly developed. Rohm provides many of the electronic devices, especially for uploading data from the real world to the computer.
Concretely, we are working in four key technologies: the sensing devices essential in acquiring data, the application-specific integrated circuits (IC) needed to process the acquired data, the communication devices that send the data to the computer, and the software that controls the entire system. In order to network equipment together chips must be small, thin, and energy efficient, and we are a leader in ultra-miniature packages such as the RASMID Series, the smallest in the world, made with new Rohm technologies.
Rohm also offers an extensive line of high-precision sensing devices, such as acceleration and gyro sensors to detect motion, and environmental sensors for air pressure, illumination, or geomagnetism, for example. And we are developing new sensors for new applications in medicine (pulse sensors) or agriculture (soil characteristic sensors), to name a few.
Facing new challenges with determination
One of the biggest problems in ramping up the IoT business is that there doesn't seem to be any single market need that can generate demand large number for several firms to share it. Instead, we have to identify one of the diverse requirements of the market and rapidly develop a solution just for it. And since this is different from the high-volume production stance based on large demand, we have to review our product development and production approaches.
The only way to get past that obstacle is to aggressively pioneer the hidden potential of new markets. I am confident you will gradually uncover new markets to nurture. Naturally, if the entire company heads off into the unknown in search of new markets you'll go bankrupt, so you need to maintain your existing businesses while investing into new possibilities.
I agree, and in fact Rohm has created the new Sensor Business Stratey group specifically to pioneer new sensor device markets, recognizing the accelerating spread of IoT-based applications. The group brings together engineers working in sensing devices, large-scale integration (LSI) chips, communication, software, and more to create a system capable of developing diverse solutions built around sensing devices. These are the people rising to the challenge of finding new markets.
We believe that collaboration with universities will be essential in discovering new market needs. Companies are always looking for things that can be turned into new businesses, making it difficult sometimes to see all the aspects of an idea. With the collaboration of a university rich in advanced technology and researching the future, I think it will be much easier to discover new possibilities.
A university is actually a medium-sized corporation with no personnel expenses, and can afford to look into various problems that a corporation simply can't consider. I dispatch students to a variety of workplaces already to discover new potential applications, and sometimes they discover some new need that we had never thought of.
Company engineers need the same ability to think outside the box, I think. Back when the needs of the market were clear-cut, engineers could create value by merely repeating the plan-test cycle, but the requirements of IoT are not at all clear. In addition to noticing a potential need, they also have to be able to explain it precisely. New technologies will be developed by first identifying market requirements, then planning how to resolve them, and finally test various proposals to find the best solution. Then, by informing society about the technology, they can create demand for it. Engineers these days need marketing aptitude, too.
It has become clear that it will be difficult to create value through the same process we've used in the past, of improving existing technology. In the IoT age we have to revamp the very way we think and do business.
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