The Internet of Things: You're Already a Part of It

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Do you realize how many of your personal or business devices are connected to the Internet? Let's talk about that.

The Internet of Things (IoT): You've heard somebody talk about it; or you've read about it in a newspaper, in a tech magazine, or on a website; or you've attended a seminar or conference where somebody told you about the next big thing.

Basically, the Internet of Things can be defined as "connecting any device to the Internet." Such devices include smartphones, cars, washing machines, coffeemakers, smart TVs, tools (from small hand tools to large, industrial machines), wearable devices such as eyeglasses and clothing, and almost anything else you can think of.

Just to put it into perspective, if I had told you 15 years ago that in 2017, through the Internet, you would be able to do social networking, manage your banking, take a picture or video and distribute it to your "friends" within seconds, play online games, check your email from your phone, and even get uncensored messages from the President of the United States at all hours of the day via something called Twitter, I'm pretty sure you would have shaken your head and said, "Jan, are you serious?"

Our abilities to communicate have expanded, and broadband Internet is available almost everywhere. We now have the ability to connect and communicate with all kind of devices via " the net." Every day, new "things" are being connected to the Internet.

What About Security?

It's pretty easy to build some type of communications protocol into almost any device, and of course that raises other issues, because one thing that is widely overlooked in many cases is security. That's why you hear stories about cars being taken over remotely by intruders, baby monitors being hacked, and car washes being hacked and forcing people to be trapped in the cars inside them.

On a larger scale, what about power plants, public transportation, and water supplies being hacked, causing communities to not function for days or weeks?

Of course, these problems should not and will not hold us back; that's just not how we are as humans. As the fascination of remotely managing all sorts of tasks and equipment soars, we will build more-secure protocols and connect our devices in a more-secure way, but hackers will always look for ways into the system, so bear that in mind when you connect something to the Internet.

A good example is a webcam. They are everywhere, and many come with a predefined password. People just plug them in, connect to the Internet, and start broadcasting their private lives. Of course, these unsecured cams will be exploited by someone, and you can go to websites like http://www.insecam.org/ to peek into thousands of unsecured webcams around the globe, simply because the owner did not change a password before connecting.

Let me ask you a question: Do you know if your mobile phone stores a "location tag" or "geo tag" as meta data when you take a picture? If it does, this means that if you upload the picture to, for example, Facebook, that company will know exactly where you took the picture. Even though Facebook strips the location from the picture before making it public, I'm sure they save the information so it can be used to send advertisements from places where you are located, track your habits, determine what your family likes, and more. You're providing information that generates a very accurate profile of who you are as a person. There's no need for the government's National Security Agency (NSA) to assist; your mobile phone and social networking does it all.

This should not drive you away from Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or Instagram, but as we connect more and more devices to the Internet, we should be aware that we expose our privacy to the world. We must bear this in mind, just like we lock our doors and windows before we leave the house. That way, we can enjoy the "connection" for the good (and hopefully not the bad) it gives us.

Let's Get Practical

So far, I have described things that you maybe already knew, but I hope you also had a few aha moments while reading.

Now I will tell you about a product that falls into the category of the Internet of Things.

But first, I will make a confession and show you all the cards in my hand so you can understand what I am talking about and why.

My company has developed a way of putting "things" on the Internet/intranet, "things" that you would normally not expect to find there, and you sure would not expect these kinds of machines to generate data that can be used to improve productivity and make people's jobs easier. I am not trying to sell you anything, but I feel that what we have developed will give you a good idea of what can be done with a lot of fantasy, some Internet programming skills, and a good idea.

The product is called REEFvisual, and it does just what the names says: It makes things visual. Let me explain. A lot of production plants have big machines that will do all kinds of things "punching objects out of metal sheets, drilling holes, sawing through all kind of materials" to make goods you use in your homes, cars, and such.

These machines come in many flavors. Some are old with no interface to anything, some are new with fancy interfaces, some have interface A and some have interface B, which makes it hard to determine how they'll perform together. And they can have different protocols from brand to brand.

But they have one thing in common: They are expensive, and they are supposed to run as close to 100 percent of the time as possible. Often, they are working 24x7 and the only thing that changes is the people operating them.

But downtime cannot be avoided. Components inside the machine can break down, materials of poor quality can cause them to fail, or they can be improperly operated because of insufficient operator training. But no matter the reason, downtime is bad and costs money, and it's an annoyance for both operator and management.

This is where our invention comes in. We created the REEFTlinkbox, which makes it possible to connect the machine to the network and "collect" machine signals that indicate how well the machine is running/performing.

Here's what we do: We install the linkbox near the machine and we monitor for any kind of signal that will tell us whether the machine is running and, if it is running, whether it's also producing. Signals can be of various kinds: an electrical signal, or a moving part where a photocell will measure whether the machine is working. The signal must be stable enough to ensure that we have a "producing" signal. Because the signal  "collection" is software-based, we can even combine various signals to sum up a secure producing signal. Our software then receives the signals that the customer chooses, and we can configure our software to act upon the signals.

We are now able to measure and monitor what's happening in the machine so that we know when the machine is not producing. Based on this input, we can push information to our software, which runs in a browser, and we can enable the operator to report and possibly fix what's wrong.

We can, for example, show a list of customer-defined  - reason codes - to the operator, who will select the reason the machine is not running. While the machine is not running, the linkbox measures the time the machine is stopped and saves that data in the REEFTvisual database. If the machine has stopped for more than one reason, we can also allow the operator to split the time "bits" into smaller pieces with different reason codes and add comments.

Depending on the various machines and their producing/running signals, we can now create a common dataset, based on the signals and the input from the operator and the machine so that management has a way to analyze why the machines are not running 100 percent of the time. With this information, management has a fact-based foundation that enables them to eliminate errors and to optimize and increase the production flow.

Because the software runs in a browser, authorized employees can connect to the production plant's network from anywhere in the world using a VPN connection and see how the machines are running in real time. Then, with a tablet, smartphone, or anything else that has a browser, it's actually possible to control the machine in a secure and agreed-upon manner.

On top of that, we can combine the machine signals with ERP data, images, videos, PDFs, and other relevant information to help the operators do their job in a more easy and secure way.

The collected information can also show how the machines are running on big screens around the plant.

Suddenly the "stupid" punching machine is connected to the Internet and is a piece of what we call the Internet of Things.

IoT Is the Future

This ends the article about the Internet of Things, and I hope it serves as a serious example for a very large subject that, whether we like it or not, will have an impact on the way we communicate and react to each other in the future.

Until next time, get connected - securely.

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