"Social Device" Special Interview

The contents were published from July 2016 to February 2017 on"Nikkei Technology Online", the engineering information website run by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc., and reprinted with the author's permission.

※Information of affiliations and titles is true and accurate at the time of publication.

Industrial IoT in Practice Tie-Ups Beyond Existing Boundaries Essential

The Internet of Things (IoT) is spreading to every sector, but Industrial IoT (IIoT) is especially active. Already engineers are at work implementing IIoT in the real world. Regional Manager Fusao Sawachika of GE Digital and Kunihiro Komiya, Wireless Module Product Development Division, LSI Product Development Headquarters of ROHM Co., Ltd. discussed the current state and future outlook of IIoT.


 Every industry seems to be looking into IoT these days. The term IoT itself just expresses a single concept, but it represents enormous potential for new business to a lot of people. And I think that IIoT will really take off in the industrial sector.


 I think IIoT is going to be a huge market. Until very recently everyone was just talking about IoT, but a variety of practical initiatives are now under way... IoT has entered a new phase. IIoT in particular is getting increasingly active.This is partially due to the launch of so many national projects around the globe recently.

 Recognizing this emerging trend, GE Digital has rolled out the Predix IIoT platform (Fig. 1). We expect that a number of new applications will be created on it. Until recently, IoT implementations have been one-off solutions, implemented on a wide range of platforms. If multiple applications are running on a common platform, though, we believe that a synergy will exist between them, and that will provide semiconductor manufacturers with significant business growth opportunities.

Fig. 1 Concept of the Predix Industrial IoT platform developed by GE Digital
Fig. 1 Concept of the Predix Industrial IoT platform developed by GE Digital

 There's no doubt in my mind that the growth of IIoT will present semiconductor manufacturers with many business opportunities. I don't think they'll be able to fully realize those opportunities, however, if they stick to the conventional approach. The dynamics of the market are completely different from past markets. Companies that insist on doing things in the same old style aren't flexible enough to cope with this new market. ROHM is already adapting to the changing requirements of the market.

 For example, the style of business is changing, and instead of merely selling single components, manufacturers have to be able to offer customers new applications based on those components. In IIoT, I think most customers will be developing solutions based on complete systems, not just individual pieces of equipment.

 My primary job is to develop wireless communication modules for IoT communication systems, but lately the R&D team has been concentrating on developing sensor network applications. We're working on applications because customers just weren't very interested when we showed them individual components. They were asking us how to use a particular component, or for detailed application design notes. We believe this type of client will become even more prevalent in the IIoT market, so we're upgrading our development and sales systems to be able to propose entire systems instead of just parts.

Energizing the Market with a Platform

Fusao Sawachika
Fusao Sawachika
GE Digital Regional Manager

 I think development of IIoT applications will become very active in the near future, just as the semiconductor manufacturers hope. The trend is accelerating thanks to increasing IIoT application development on platforms. And there will be more vendors offering IIoT platforms, too.

 When we announced Predix three years ago, I believe it was the only platform in the IIoT field. Today, though, a range of companies have entered the market. Customers will use multiple platforms, picking specific solutions for specific needs instead of relying on a single one. We'll also see applications being ported from in-house platforms to other platforms. These are the sorts of changes that will drive market growth. And having more options to choose from is certainly to the advantage of the end user.


 As the platform concept gains traction in the industry, it may lead to new demand for new electronic devices, in new applications. I think there will be a need for new solutions on new platforms, rather than continuing to utilize old equipment and systems. In Factory Automation (FA), for example, many pieces of manufacturing or fabrication equipment are used over a ten- or twenty-year span. Many of them cannot be easily modified to handle the requirements of IIoT applications. Older equipment is a major issue here, because adapting it to handle IIoT will pose a real problem for customers hoping to optimize the entire production line with an IIoT platform. We offer a variety of solutions for this problem, with add-on sensors, wireless networks to link them up, and the like.


 It might be fairly easy to achieve widespread adoption of the new technology, even with existing systems, in industrial applications. The shift to platforms also means more open technology, and open standards and technology are already widely appreciated in industry, such as with open networks, and things like OLE for Process Control (OPC), the data-transfer standard for software execution modules.

In-House Tie-Ups Bring Companies Closer to Customers

Kunihiro Komiya
Kunihiro Komiya
ROHM Co., Ltd.
Division Manager Wireless Module Product Development Division

 When it comes to industry, being able to trial new manufacturing systems and technologies in-house is a big advantage. We are also a manufacturer, but we handle the entire process from materials to devices ourselves, and have accumulated considerable technology and expertise over the years. Because we have our own large-scale production facilities, we can trial IIoT products and technologies ourselves and see how they really work on the shop floor.

 In fact, the IoT concept is promoting interaction between different departments that never used to work with each other, creating new feedback to product development. When our own manufacturing people give us suggestions and criticisms, we better understand what we hear from our customers, and can better sympathize with it. We feel a lot closer to our customers.


 That's one reason why I think IoT is such an important concept. Many corporations have optimized their operations in departmental units, but IoT is forcing more and more companies to take a serious look at optimizing the entire setup.

 We think this is a crucial point, and we've installed Predix already to give it a practical workout. We're serving as the hub, bringing together people from diverse departments for the first time, and identifying and clarifying issues that need to be resolved. After all, this is a big investment, and we want to get maximum effect. It is critical that we work the bugs out first.


 Your approach is very close to what I have suggested in the past, which is bringing together diverse people and opinions to resolve problems using a trial system, a prototype.

 It is importantto develop your own prototype for in-house testing, not only to appeal the superiority of your own devices, but also to better understand customer requirements. There are a lot of customers who come to us for help making a product, but who haven't yet nailed down the essential functions and technologies they need. We ask them what sort of measurement precision they need on the sensors, or what the data capture frequency should be, and they simply don't know! And that's when we offer them our prototype; sometimes it gets installed on the customer's production line, or equipment. When they see it in operation they can point to specific actions or functions and tell us more accurately what they want and need.

Accelerating Tie-Upsacross Industry Lines


 Tie-ups are also essential between companies, not just between departments within one. As I mentioned earlier, we've implemented Predix, and are porting our applications over to it now. Even so, it only addresses a very small portion of total market need. That's why we're actively partnering with system integrators, developers, and other firms in Japan and overseas.

 An important part of our mission is providing a platform that facilitates the creation of systems, with input by many companies.

 Another key element is contributing to the profitability of the system integrators, developers and other companies who provide the technologies and devices needed to construct IIoT systems. We've implemented a billing system in Predix, so that when a customer uses software offered via Predix, the developer receives a fee. We've laid the groundwork for a whole ecosystem, providing profitability to everyone involved in the IIoT system. As of May 2016, there are over 8500 developers worldwide registered in the system.


 A promising idea indeed for component and device manufacturers. Unless everyone involved in the business receives a reasonable profit, you can't expect future growth. Our efforts in IIoT are primarily sensors and wireless communication modules. Specifically, we propose solutions that combine wireless communication modules with sensing devices such as motion or environmental sensors.

 Instead of Wi-Fi, we are utilizing the Wi-SUN sub-GHz band wireless communication standard, which offers lower power consumption and longer range. We were the first in the industry to be certified for the standard, and we have also obtained certification under the Japanese Radio Act so our customers can rest assured. We have a range of products for various needs, such as a surface-mount design for compact embedded applications, and a USB plug-in for upgrading existing equipment such as gateways. Our online store makes it possible for customers to order even a single unit.

 At present, we are primarily targeting applications like Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) and industrial machinery monitoring.

 We also market EnOcean communication modules (Fig. 2): a unique, battery-free wireless communication technology with ultra-low power consumption. When you consider system operation, supplying power to the sensor nodes is a crucial point. Running supply wires out to sensors during installation, or changing sensor batteries as needed, are labor-intensive. We believe that there will be far more battery-free sensor systems in the future, with more sensor nodes.

 Sensors and wireless devices are the endpoints of the system, but I think those same characteristics could define the system overall as well. We hope that platform vendors will recognize the excellence of our products, and make their platforms even better.

Fig. 2 EnOcean ultra-lower-power wireless communication technology for battery-free IoT edge devices
Fig. 2 EnOcean ultra-lower-power wireless communication technology for battery-free IoT edge devices

EnOcean only requires minute power levels, and through a combination of ultra-small generators and energy harvesting technology to convert environmental light or vibration into electrical energy, it is possible to design systems to transmit information from battery-free edge devices via wireless communication.


 When you approach a platform vendor with a proposal, it's a lot easier for us to adopt it if it's provided as a complete set, with needed software and other components. Or it could be designed with an interface complying with accepted standard.

 I really want to stress the importance of offering end users more choice. I don't mean a range of products, but a selection of solutions supported at the device level. For example, there are situations that can't be handled with a single sensor, but can be resolved with multiple sensors. Customers will surely need communication systems, and systems to integrate the various sensors in the field. If you can provide peripheral ideas like these I think you'll be even more effective.


 In the past, device manufacturers tended to stress the functions and performance of individual devices. Exactly how to introduce devices for the IIoT market is a tricky question.

 I mentioned that the emergence of the IoT concept has brought about new interaction between different departments in the company. In the same way there are also new points of common interest between the device people and the systems people, and I think that interaction will become more active in the future.

 When the people in charge of the higher-level systems get involved, it will change the industry, the way we talk and look at problems. There was a lot of hesitation when we started, as people stumbled with unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary, but now we can have productive discussions about resolving problems. When the various stakeholders involved in building IIoT systems can communicate fully with each other, it will finally be possible to accurately grasp market needs. That, in turn, will boost the added value of our devices. I look forward to it.

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