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Take a Walk on the Wild (Other) Side

Varun Nagaraj, President and CEO
Sierra Monitor Corp.

For those of us of a certain age, there is a difference between a “real product” and a “toy product”. Some years ago, I was meeting with a large vendor who makes thermostats amongst other things, when NEST was bought by Google for a princely amount. The executive I was with sniffed disparagingly and said “that’s a lot of money for a toy”. Ironically, Google paid more for this toy than what his company that makes “real products” was worth. All of us who work for or with companies in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) space pride ourselves on the fact that we make real products that solve real problems, unlike all these toy IoT consumer gizmos. But that said, it is time that we in the IIoT space learn that these consumer IoT guys might have a thing or two to teach us.

In this blog piece, I want to highlight a lesson from the consumer IoT world that the companies that make IIoT products should appreciate and apply to their business. At a philosophical level, it is the difference between the pluralistic view of the world that the younger consumer companies and workers embrace versus the rigid command and control view that comes more easily to the established industrial companies. At a product vision level, it is the difference between ensuring that your product’s voice can be heard by you, versus being satisfied that your products voice is provided to other “supervisory systems”, leaving you none the wiser about your own product. At a technology level, it is about offering a “whole product” that consists of the device, the cloud, and an app; versus thinking of the product as just a piece of hardware. Let me elaborate some more:

Consider any consumer IoT product – whether it is a smart thermostat, a smart lock, a home security camera, a smart washer/dryer, or a smart wearable product. Almost all such products consist of the device itself, along with an app provided by the device vendor. The device vendor runs a cloud service that the devices register with, and provide their voice to. The apps work against the data in the cloud and make the devices real and interesting to the user. Yes, an individual home user might end up with ten apps on their phone to manage their ten devices from ten vendors – but ask that user if they’d prefer to do that or “integrate all that information into a comprehensive home management platform and have a single unified application interface”, and you’ll be asked if you are recently arrived from the ex-Soviet Union. In this world, a noisy, pluralistic approach is preferable to a structured supervisory approach. The device makers benefit from this approach as well, developing deep insights on their users, and continuously innovating and offering better gizmos and better services around their gadgets.

IndusNow consider your typical IIoT device or controller in a facility. The facility is “governed” by a supervisory management system, typically called a SCADA system or a BMS/BAS. All devices or controllers in the facility are vassals or tributes, offering up their data and information to this all-seeing, all-powerful supervisory system. Once the IIoT device or controller maker has sold their product into their facility, they do not have any access or visibility to their products in use. Sure, the powerful supervisory system does – and that’s great news for the company that makes that supervisory system. But what about the twenty other companies that sold their products into this facility? They are blind and deaf to their own products, unless of course, the facility manager calls to complain that their product isn’t working.

So what should the IIoT device or controller vendors do? Don’t be satisfied with just being a cog in a larger wheel. Yes – your products have to tie into a larger hierarchical system – that’s just the nature of these facilities, and that will not change. But, aspire to be more. So what if you just make “flow meters” – just to pick one of a hundred devices or controllers used in facilities – that feed into a supervisory system? Think of your flow meter as a smart, cloud-connected product. Insist on offering your own apps to the customer. Insist on having your own cloud point-of-presence. Insist on staying connected with your products. Insist that you want to continue to hear your product’s voices even after they have been installed in the field. Now you will know how your products are being used. You’ll be able to provide proactive and predictive services. You will learn about real life usage and might identify the next cool feature your customer might pay more for. Now why would the customer, say the facility manager in this case, let you establish cloud-based connectivity to your products? It’s because they too would benefit from your ability to provide better support, better innovation, and possibly even a better business model, for example, offering your product as a service rather than as a piece of capital equipment.

Walk on the other side and bring that lesson over into your world. It may feel counterintuitive and uncomfortable, but as Mr. Mick Jagger once said, “But if you try sometimes you might find; you get what you need.”

As CEO of Sierra Monitor, Milpitas, Calif., Varun Nagaraj often speaks with OEMs who purchase protocol gateways; and with facility and safety managers who purchase fire- and gas-detection systems. Contact him at VNagaraj@sierramonitor.com.

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