More Blockchain Synergies With IoT: Supply Chain Optimization

The more I learn about blockchain’s possible uses — this time for supply chains — the more convinced I am that it is absolutely essential to full development of the IoT’s potential.

I recently raved about blockchain’s potential to perhaps solve the IoT’s growing security and privacy challenges. Since then, I’ve discovered that it can also further streamline and optimize the supply chain, another step toward the precision that I think is such a hallmark of the IoT.

As I’ve written before, the ability to instantly share (something we could never do before) real-time data about your assembly line’s status, inventories, etc. with your supply chain can lead to unprecdented integration of the supply chain and factory, much of it on a M2M basis without any human intervention. It seems to me that the blockchain can be the perfect mechanism to bring about this synchronization.

A brief reminder that, paradoxically, it’s because blockchain entries (blocks) are shared, and distributed (vs. centralized) that it’s secure without using a trusted intermediary such as a bank, because no one participant can change an entry after it’s posted.

Complementing the IBM video I included in my last post on the subject, here’s one that I think succinctly summarizes blockchain’s benefits:

A recent LoadDelivered article detailed a number of the benefits from building your supply chain around blockchain. They paralleling the ones I mentioned in my prior post regarding its security benefits, of using blockchain to organize your supply chain (with some great links for more details):

  • “Recording the quantity and transfer of assets – like pallets, trailers, containers, etc. – as they move between supply chain nodes (Talking Logistics)
  • Tracking purchase orders, change orders, receipts, shipment notifications, or other trade-related documents
  • Assigning or verifying certifications or certain properties of physical products; for example determining if a food product is organic or fair trade (Provenance)
  • Linking physical goods to serial numbers, bar codes, digital tags like RFID, etc.
  • Sharing information about manufacturing process, assembly, delivery, and maintenance of products with suppliers and vendors.”

That kind of information, derived from real-time IoT sensor data, should be irresistible to companies compared to the relative inefficiency of today’s supply chain.

The article goes on to list a variety of benefits:

  • “Enhanced Transparency. Documenting a product’s journey across the supply chain reveals its true origin and touchpoints, which increases trust and helps eliminate the bias found in today’s opaque supply chains. Manufacturers can also reduce recalls by sharing logs with OEMs and regulators (Talking Logistics).
  • Greater Scalability. Virtually any number of participants, accessing from any number of touchpoints, is possible (Forbes).
  • Better Security. A shared, indelible ledger with codified rules could potentially eliminate the audits required by internal systems and processes (Spend Matters).
  • Increased Innovation. Opportunities abound to create new, specialized uses for the technology as a result of the decentralized architecture.”

Note that it the advantages aren’t all hard numbers, but also allowing marketing innovations, similar to the way the IoT allows companies to begin marketing their products as services because of real-time data from the products in the field. In the case of applying it to the supply chain (food products, for example), manufacturers could get a marketing advantage because they could offer objective, tamper-proof documentation of the product’s organic or non-GMO origins. Who would have thought that technology whose primary goal is increasing operating efficiency could have these other, creative benefits as well?

Applying  blockchain to the supply chain is getting serious attention, including a pilot program in the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest.  IBM, Intel, Cisco and Accenture are among the blue-chip members of Hyperledger, a new open source Linux Foundation collaboration to further develop blockchain. Again, it’s the open source, decentralized aspect of blockchain that makes it so effective.

Logistics expert Adrian Gonzalez is perhaps the most bullish on blockchain’s potential to revolutionize supply chains:

“the peer-to-peer, decentralized architecture of blockchain has the potential to trigger a new wave of innovation in how supply chain applications are developed, deployed, and used….(becoming) the new operating system for Supply Chain Operating Networks

It’s also another reminder of the paradoxical wisdom of one of my IoT “Essential Truths,” that we must learn to ask “who else could share this information” rather than hoarding it as in the past. It is the very fact that blockchain data is shared that means it can’t be tampered with by a single actor.

What particularly intrigues me about widespread use of blockchain at the heart of companies’ operations and fueled by real-time data from IoT sensors and other devices is that it would ensure that privacy and security, which I otherwise fear would always be an afterthought, would instead be inextricably linked with achieving efficiency gains. That would make companies eager to embrace the blockchain, assuring their attention to privacy and security as part of the deal. That would be a definite win-win.

Blockchain must definitely be on your radar in 2017.


Lo and behold, right after I posted this, news that WalMart, the logistics savants, are testing blockchain for supply chain management!


IoT Intangibles: Increased Customer Loyalty

There are so many direct, quantifiable benefits of the IoT, such as increased quality (that 99.9988% quality rate at Siemens’s Amberg plant!) and precision, that we may forget there are also potential intangible benefits.

Most important of those is customer loyalty, brought about by dramatic shifts both in product designs and how they are marketed.

Much of this results from the IoT lifting the veil of Collective Blindness to which I’ve referred before: in particular, our prior inability to document how products were actually used once they left the loading dock. As I’ve speculated, that probably meant that manufacturers got deceptive information about how customers actually used products and their degree of satisfaction. The difficulty of getting feedback logically meant that those who most liked and most hated a product were over-represented: those who kinda liked it weren’t sufficiently motivated to take the extra steps to be heard.

Now, by contrast, product designers, marketers, and maintenance staffs can share (that critical verb from my Circular Company vision!) real-time data about how a product is actually operating in the field, often from a “digital twin” they can access right at their desks.

Why’s that important?

It can give them easy insights (especially if those different departments do access and discuss the data at the same time, each offering its own unique perspectives, on issues that will build customer loyalty:

  • what new features can we add that will keep them happy?
  • can we offer upgrades such as new operating software (such as the Tesla software that was automatically installed in every single car and avoided a recall) that will provide better customer experiences and keep the product fresh?
  • what possible maintenance problems can we spot in their earliest stages, so we can put “predictive maintenance” services into play at minimal cost and bother to the customer?

I got interested in this issue of product design and customer loyalty while consulting for IBM in the 9o’s, when it introduced the IBM PS 2E (for Energy & Environmental), a CES best-of-show winner in part because of its snap-together modular design. While today’s thin-profile-at-all-costs PC and laptop designs have made user-friendly upgrades a distant memory, one of the things that appealed to me about this design was the realization that if you could keep users satisfied that they were on top of  new developments by incremental substitution of new modules, they’d be more loyal and less likely to explore other providers.

In the same vein, as GE has found, the rapid feedback can dramatically speed upgrades and new features. That’s important for loyalty: if you maintain a continuing interaction with the customer and anticipate their demands for new features, they’ll have less reason to go on the open market and evaluate all of your competitors’ products when they do want to move up.


Equally important for customer loyalty is the new marketing options that the continuous flow of real-time operating data offer you. For a growing number of companies, that means they’re no longer selling products, but leasing them, with the price based on actual customer usage: if it ain’t bein’ used, it ain’t costing them anything and it ain’t bringing you any revenue!

Examples include:

  • jet turbines which, because of the real-time data flow, can be marketed on the basis of thrust generated: if it’s sitting on the ground, the leasee doesn’t pay.  The same real-time data flow allows the manufacturer to schedule predictive maintenance at the earliest sign of a problem, reducing both its cost and the impact on the customer.
  • Siemens’s Mobility Services, which add in features such as 3-D manufactured spare parts that speed maintenance and reduced costs, keeping the trains running.
  • Philips’s lighting services, which are billed on the basis of use, not sold.
  • SAP’s prototype smart vending machine, which (if you opt in) may offer you a special discount based on your past purchasing habits.

At its most extreme is Caterpillar’s Reman process, where the company takes back and remanufactures old products, giving them a new life — and creating new revenues — when competitors’ products are in the landfill.

Loyalty can also be a benefit of IoT strategies for manufacturers’ own operations as well. Remember that the technological obstacles to instant sharing of real-time data have been eliminted for the supply chain as well. If you choose to share it, your resupply programs can also be automatically triggered on a M2M basis, giving an inherent advantage to the domestic supplier who can get the needed part there in a few hours, versua the low-cost supplier abroad who may take weeks to reach your loading dock.

It may be harder to quantify than quality improvements or streamlined production through the IoT, but that doesn’t mean that dependable revenue streams from loyal customers aren’t an important potential benefit as well.

Blockchain might be answer to IoT security woes

Could blockchain be the answer to IoT security woes?

I hope so, because I’d like to get away from my recent fixation on IoT security breaches and their consequences,  especially the Mirai botnet attack that brought a large of the Internet to its knees this Fall and the even scarier (because it involved Philips, a company that takes security seriously) white-hat hackers attack on Hue bulbs.  As I’ve written, unless IoT security is improved, the public and corporations will lose faith in it and the IoT will never develop to its full potential.

Now, there’s growing discussion that blockchain (which makes bitcoin possible), might offer a good IoT security platform.

Ironically — for something dealing with security — blockchain’s value in IoT may be because the data is shared and no one person owns it or can alter it unilaterally (BTW, this is one more example of my IoT “Essential Truth” that with the IoT data should be shared, rather than hoarded as in the past.

If you’re not familiar with blockchain, here’s an IBM video, using an example from the highly security-conscious diamond industry, that gives a nice summary of how it works and why:

The key aspects of blockchain is that it:

  • is transparent
  • can trace all aspects of actions or transactions (critical for complex sequences of actions in an IoT process)
  • is distributed: there’s a shared form of record keeping, that everyone in the process can access.
  • requires permission — everyone has permission for every step
  • is secure: no one person — even a system administrator — can alter it without group approval.

Of these, perhaps the most important aspect for IoT security is that no one person can change the blockchain unilaterally, adding something (think malware) without the action being permanently recorded and without every participant’s permission.  To add a new transaction to the blockchain, all the members must validate it by applying an algorithm to confirm its validity.

The blockchain can also increase efficiency by reducing the need for intermediaries, and it’s a much better way to handle the massive flood of data that will be generated by the IoT.

The Chain of Things think tank and consortium is taking the lead on exploring blockchain’s application to the IoT. The group describes itself as “technologists at the nexus of IoT hardware manufacturing and alternative blockchain applications.” They’ve run several blockchain hackathons, and are working on open standards for IoT blockchains.

Contrast blockchain with the current prevailing IoT security paradigm.  As Datafloq points out, it’s based on the old client-server approach, which really doesn’t work with the IoT’s complexity and variety of connections: “Connection between devices will have to exclusively go through the internet, even if they happen to be a few feet apart.”  It doesn’t make sense to try to funnel the massive amounts of data that will result from widespread deployment of billions of IoT devices and sensor through a centralized model when a decentralized, peer-to-peer alternative would be more economical and efficient.

Datafloq concludes:

“Blockchain technology is the missing link to settle scalability, privacy, and reliability concerns in the Internet of Things. Blockchain technologies could perhaps be the silver bullet needed by the IoT industry. Blockchain technology can be used in tracking billions of connected devices, enable the processing of transactions and coordination between devices; allow for significant savings to IoT industry manufacturers. This decentralized approach would eliminate single points of failure, creating a more resilient ecosystem for devices to run on. The cryptographic algorithms used by blockchains, would make consumer data more private.”

I love it: paradoxically, sharing data makes it more secure!  Until something better comes along and/or the nature of IoT strategy challenges changes, it seems to me this should be the basis for secure IoT data transmission!




Libelium: flexibility a key strategy for IoT startups

I’ve been fixated recently on venerable manufacturing firms such as 169-yr. old Siemens making the IoT switch.  Time to switch focus, and look at one of my fav pure-play IoT firms, Libelium.  I think Libelium proves that smart IoT firms must, above all, remain nimble and flexible,  by three interdependent strategies:

  • avoiding picking winners among communications protocols and other standards.
  • avoiding over-specialization.
  • partnering instead of going it alone.
Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

If you aren’t familiar with Libelium, it’s a Spanish company that recently turned 10 (my, how time flies!) in a category littered with failures that had interesting concepts but didn’t survive. Bright, young, CEO Alicia Asin, one of my favorite IoT thought leaders (and do-ers!) was recently named best manager of the year in the Aragón region in Spain.  I sat down with her for a wide-ranging discussion when she recently visited the Hub of the Universe.

I’ve loved the company since its inception, particularly because it is active in so many sectors of the IoT, including logistics, industrial control, smart meters, home automation and a couple of my most favorite, agriculture (I have a weak spot for anything that combines “IoT” AND “precision”!) and smart cities.  I asked Asin why the company hadn’t picked one of those verticals as its sole focus: “it was too risky to choose one market. That’s still the same: the IoT is still so fragmented in various verticals.”

The best illustration of the company’s strategy in action is its Waspmote sensor platform, which it calls the “most complete Internet of Things platform in the market with worldwide certifications.” It can monitor up to 120 sensors to cover hundreds of IoT applications in the wide range of markets Libelium serves with this diversified strategy, ranging from the environment to “smart” parking.  The new versions of their sensors include actuators, to not simply report data, but also allow M2M control of devices such as irrigation valves, thermostats, illumination systems, motors and PLC’s. Equally important, because of the potentially high cost of having to replace the sensors, the new ones use extremely little power, so they can last        .

Equally important as the company’s refusal to limit itself to a single vertical market is its commitment to open systems and multiple communications protocols, including LoRaWAN, SIGFOX, ZigBee and 4G — a total of 16 radio technologies. It also provides both open source SDK and APIs.

Why?  As Asin told me:


“There is not going to be a standard. This (competiting standards and technology) is the new normal.

“I talk to some cities that want to become involved in smart cities, and they say we want to start working on this but we want to use the protocol that will be the winner.

“No one knows what will be the winner.

“We use things that are resilient. We install all the agents — if you aren’t happy with one, you just open the interface and change it. You don’t have to uninstall anything. What if one of these companies increases their prices to heaven, or you are not happy with the coverage, or the company disappears? We allow you to have all your options open.

“The problem is that this (not picking a standard) is a new message, and people don’t like to listen.  This is how we interpret the future.”

Libelium makes 110 different plug and play sensors (or as they call them, “Plug and Sense,” to detect a wide range of data from sources including gases, events, parking, energy use, agriculture, and water.  They claim the lowest power consumption in the industry, leading to longer life and lower maintenance and operating costs.

Finally, the company doesn’t try to do everything itself: Libelium has a large and growing partner network (or ecosystem, as it calls it — music to the ears of someone who believes in looking to nature for profitable business inspiration). Carrying the collaboration theme even farther, they’ve created an “IoT Marketplace,” where pre-assembled device combinations from Libelium and partners can be purchased to meet the specific needs of niches such as e-health,  vineyards, water quality, smart factories, and smart parking.  As the company says, “the lack of integrated solutions from hardware to application level is a barrier for fast adoption,” and the kits take away that barrier.

I can’t stress it enough: for IoT startups that aren’t totally focused on a single niche (a high-stakes strategy), Libelium offers a great model because of its flexibility, agnostic view of standards, diversification among a variety of niches, and eagerness to collaborate with other vendors.

BTW: Asin is particularly proud of the company’s newest offering, My Signals,which debuted in October and has already won several awards.  She told me that they hope the device will allow delivering Tier 1 medical care to billions of underserved people worldwide who live in rural areas with little access to hospitals.  It combines 15 different sensors measuring the most important body parameters that would ordinarily be measured in a hospital, including ECG, glucose, airflow, pulse, oxygen in

It combines 15 different sensors measuring the most important body parameters that would ordinarily be measured in a hospital, including ECG, glucose, airflow, pulse, blood oxygen, and blood pressure. The data is encrypted and sent to the Libelium Cloud in real-time to be visualized on the user’s private account.

It fits in a small suitcase and costs less than 1/100th the amount of a traditional Emergency Observation Unit.

The kit was created to make it possible for m-health developers to create prototypes cheaply and quickly.

When Philips’s Hue Bulbs Are Attacked, IoT Security Becomes Even Bigger Issue

OK, what will it take to make security (and privacy) job #1 for the IoT industry?

The recent Mirai DDoS attack should have been enough to get IoT device companies to increase their security and privacy efforts.

Now we hear that the Hue bulbs from Philips, a global electronics and IoT leader that DOES emphasize security and doesn’t cut corners, have been the focus of a potentially devastating attack (um, just wonderin’: how does triggering mass epileptic seizures through your light bulbs grab you?).

Since it’s abundantly clear that the US president-elect would rather cut regulations than add needed ones (just announcing that, for every new regulation, two must be cut), the burden of improving IoT security will lie squarely on the shoulders of the industry itself. BTW:kudos in parting to outgoing FTC Chair Edith Ramirez, who has made intelligent, workable IoT regulations in collaboration with self-help efforts by the industry a priority. Will we be up to the security challenge, or, as I’ve warned before, will security and privacy lapses totally undermine the IoT in its adolescence by losing the public and corporate confidence and trust that is so crucial in this particular industry?

Count me among the dubious.

Here’s what happened in this truly scary episode, which, for the first time, presages making the focus of an IoT hack an entire city, by exploiting what might otherwise be a smart city/smart grid virtue: a large installed base of smart bulbs, all within communication distance of each other. The weapons? An off-the-shelf drone and an USB stick (the same team found that a car will also do nicely as an attack vector). Fortunately, the perpetrators in this case were a group of white-hat hackers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Dalhousie University in Canada, who reported it to Philips so they could implement additional protections, which the company did.

Here’s what they wrote about their plan of attack:

“In this paper we describe a new type of threat in which adjacent IoT devices will infect each other with a worm that will spread explosively over large areas in a kind of nuclear chain reaction (my emphasis), provided that the density of compatible IoT devices exceeds a certain critical mass. In particular, we developed and verified such an infection using the popular Philips Hue smart lamps as a platform.

“The worm spreads by jumping directly from one lamp to its neighbors, using only their built-in ZigBee wireless connectivity and their physical proximity. The attack can start by plugging in a single infected bulb anywhere in the city, and then catastrophically spread everywhere within minutes, enabling the attacker to turn all the city lights on or off, permanently brick them, or exploit them in a massive DDOS attack (my emphasis). To demonstrate the risks involved, we use results from percolation theory to estimate the critical mass of installed devices for a typical city such as Paris whose area is about 105 square kilometers: The chain reaction will fizzle if there are fewer than about 15,000 randomly located smart lights in the whole city, but will spread everywhere when the number exceeds this critical mass (which had almost certainly been surpassed already (my emphasis).

“To make such an attack possible, we had to find a way to remotely yank already installed lamps from their current networks, and to perform over-the-air firmware updates. We overcame the first problem by discovering and exploiting a major bug in the implementation of the Touchlink part of the ZigBee Light Link protocol, which is supposed to stop such attempts with a proximity test. To solve the second problem, we developed a new version of a side channel attack to extract the global AES-CCM key that Philips uses to encrypt and authenticate new firmware. We used only readily available equipment costing a few hundred dollars, and managed to find this key without seeing any actual updates. This demonstrates once again how difficult it is to get security right even for a large company that uses standard cryptographic techniques to protect a major product.”

Again, this wasn’t one of those fly-by-night Chinese manufacturers of low-end IoT devices, but Philips, a major, respected, and vigilant corporation.

As for the possible results? It could:

  •  jam WiFi connections
  • disturb the electric grid
  • brick devices making entire critical systems inoperable
  • and, as I mentioned before, cause mass epileptic seizures.

As for the specifics, according to TechHive, the researchers installed Hue bulbs in several offices in an office building in the Israeli city of Beer Sheva. In a nice flair for the ironic, the building housed several computer security firms and the Israeli Computer Emergency Response Team.  They attached the attack kit on the USB stick to a drone, and flew it toward the building from 350 meters away. When they got to the building they took over the bulbs and made them flash the SOS signal in Morse Code.

The researchers”were able to bypass any prohibitions against remote access of the networked light bulbs, and then install malicious firmware. At that point the researchers were able to block further wireless updates, which apparently made the infection irreversible. ‘There is no other method of reprogramming these [infected] devices without full disassemble (which is not feasible). Any old stock would also need to be recalled, as any devices with vulnerable firmware can be infected as soon as power is applied.’”

Worst of all, the attack was against Zigbee, one of the most robust and widely-used IoT protocols, an IoT favorite because Zigbee networks tend to be cheaper and simpler than WiFi or BlueTooth.

The attack points up one of the critical ambiguities about the IoT. On one hand, the fact that it allows networking of devices leads to “network effects,” where each device becomes more valuable because of the synergies with other IoT devices. On the other hand, that same networking and use of open standards means that penetrating one device can mean ultimately penetrating millions and compounding the damage.

I’m hoping against hope that when Trump’s team tries to implement cyber-warfare protections they’ll extend the scope to include the IoT because of this specific threat. If they do, they’ll realize that you can’t just say yes cyber-security and no, regulations. In the messy world of actually governing, rather than issuing categorical dictums, you sometimes have to embrace the messy world of ambiguity.  

What do you think?


Siemens’s Mobility Services: Trains Become IoT Labs on Wheels

George Stephenson's Killingworth locomotive Source: Project Gutenberg

George Stephenson’s Killingworth locomotive
Source: Project Gutenberg

As those of you who know rail history understand, with Stephenson as your last name, you’re bound to have a strong interest in railroads! Add in the fact that I was associate producer of an award-winning documentary on the subject back in the early 70’s, and it’s no wonder I was hooked when I got a chance to meet with some of Siemens’s top rail executives on my trip to Barcelona last week (Disclaimer: Siemens paid my expenses, but didn’t dictate what I covered, nor did they have editorial review of this piece).

What really excites me about railroads and the IoT is that they neatly encapsulate the dramatic transformation from the traditional industrial economy to the IoT: on one hand, the railroad was perhaps THE most critical invention making possible 19th century industry, and yet it still exists, in recognizable but radically-evolved form, in 2016. As you’ll see below, trains have essentially become laboratories on wheels!

I dwelt on the example of the Union Pacific in my e-book introduction to the IoT, SmartStuff, because to CIO Lynden Tennison was an early adopter, with his efforts focused largely on reducing the number of costly and dangerous derailments, through measures such as putting infrared sensors every twenty miles along the rail bed to spot “hotboxes,” overheating bearings. That allowed an early version of what we now know as predictive maintenance, pulling cars off at the next convenient yard so the bearings could be replaced before a serious problem. Even though the technology even five years ago was primitive compared to today, the UP cut bearing-related derailments by 75%.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Siemens’s application of the IoT to trains through its Mobility Services is yielding amazing benefits: increasing reliability, cutting costs, and even leading to possible new business models. They’ve taken over maintenance for more than 50 rail and transit programs.

While I love IoT startups with a radical new vision and no history to encumber them, Siemens is a beacon to those companies firmly rooted in manufacturing which may wonder whether to incorporate the IoT in their services and strategy. I suspect that its software products are inherently more valuable than competitors from pure-play software firms at commercial launch because the company eats its own dogfood and applies the new technology first to the products it manufactures and maintains — closing the loop.

Several of its executives emphasized that one of the advantages Siemens feels they enjoy is that their software engineers in Munich work in a corner of an old locomotive factory that Siemens still operates, so they can interact with those actually building and maintaining the engines on a daily basis. When it comes to security issues, their experience as a manufacturer means they understand the role of each component of the signaling system. Dr. Sebastian Schoning, ceo of Siemens client Gehring Technologies, which manufactures precision honing tools, told me that it was easier to sell these digital services to its own client base because so much of their current products include Siemens devices, giving them confidence in the new offerings. GE enjoys the same advantages of combining manufacturing and digital services with its Evolution Series locomotives.

The key to Siemens’s Mobility Services is Sinalytics, its platform architecture for data analysis not just for rail, but also for industries ranging from medical equipment to wind farms. More than 300,000 devices currently feed real-time data to the platform,   Consistent with my IoT-centric “Circular Company” vision, Sinalytics capitalizes on the data for multiple uses, including connectivity, data integration, analytics, and the all-important cyber security — they call the result not Big Data, but Smart Data. As with data services from jet turbine manufacturers such as Rolls Royce and GE, the platform also allows merging the data with data from sources such as weather forecasts which, in combination, can let clients optimize operating efficiency on a real-time M2M basis.  

With the new approach, trains become IoT laboratories on wheels, combining all of the key elements of an IoT system:

  • Sensing: there are sensors on the engines and gearboxes, plus vibration sensors on  microphones measure noises from bearings in commuter trains. They can even measure how engine oil is aging, so it can be changed when really needed, rather than on an arbitrary schedule.
  • Algorithms to make sense of the data and act on it. They read out patterns, record deviations & compare them with train control systems or vehicles of the same type.
  • Predictive maintenance replaces scheduled maintenance, dramatically reducing down-time and catastrophic failure.For example: “There’s a warning in one of the windows (of the control center display): engine temperature unusual. ‘We need to analyze the situation in greater depth to know what to do next  — we call it  ‘root cause analysis,” (say) Vice-President for Customer Support Herbert Padinger. ‘We look at its history and draw on comparative data from the fleet as a whole.’ Clicking on the message opens a chart showing changes in temperature during the past three months. The increased heat is gradually traced to a signal assembly. The Siemens experts talk with the customer to establish how urgent the need for action is, and then takes the most appropriate steps.”  He says that temperature and vibration analyses from the critical gearboxes gives Siemens at least three days advance notice of a breakdown — plenty of time for maintenance or replacement.  Predictive maintenance is now the norm for 70-80% of Siemens’s repairs.
  • Security (especially important given all of the miles of track and large crowds on station platforms): it includes video-based train-dispatch and platform surveillance using its SITRAIL D system, as well as cameras in the trains. The protections have to run the gamut from physical attacks to cyber attacks.  For security, the data is shared by digital radio, not networks also shared by consumers.

When operations are digitized, it allows seamlessly integrating emerging digital technologies into the services. Siemens Digital Services also included augmented reality (so repair personnel can see manuals on heads-up displays), social collaboration platforms, and — perhaps most important — 3-D printing-based additive manufacturing, so that replacement parts can be delivered with unprecedented speed. 3-D printing also allows dramatic reduction in parts inventories and allows replacement of obsolete parts that may no longer be available through conventional parts depots or even — get this — to improve on the original part’s function and/or durability, based on practical experience gained from observing the parts in use.  Siemens has used 3-D printing for the past last 3 years, and it lets them assure that they will have replacements for the locomotive’s entire lifespan, which can exceed 30 years.

The results of the new approach are dramatic.

  • None of the Velaro trains that Siemens maintains for several operators have broken down since Sinalytics was implemented. Among those in Spain only 1 has left more than 15 min. behind time in 2,300 trips: .0004%!
  • Reliability for London’s West Coast Mainline is 99.7%

  • Perhaps most impressive, because of the extreme cold conditions it must endure, the reliability rate for the Velaro service in Russia is 99.9%!

Their ultimate goal is a little higher: what Siemens calls (pardon the pun) 100% Railability (TM).

And, consistent with what other companies find when they fully implement not only IoT technology, but also what I like to call “IoT Thinking,” when it does reach those previously inconceivable quality benchmarks, the company predicts that, as the software and sensors evolve, the next stage will be new business models in which billing will be determined by guaranteeing customers availability and performance.

PS: I’ll be posting more about my interviews with Siemens officials and the Gartner event in coming days.

#IoT and Trump’s Election

Posted on 9th November 2016 in government, Internet of Things

I try to keep my politics out of this blog (disclosure: I am an old-fashioned liberal Democrat, who cares about poor, working-class white men AND everyone), but I do feel compelled to bring one little factoid to your attention: a quick review of Google earlier for “Internet of Things” AND Trump revealed absolutely nothing.  As for Obama initiatives in the field, such as the recent Smart Cities contest, you can bet they will be among the first programs axed by executive action. If you didn’t feel compelled to vote, or, even worst, voted for him to “Send Washington a Message,” consider it sent, and I hope you can live with what you have set in process. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

For everyone else, pray for the future of the world — it’s that dangerous when a narcissist has his finger on the nuclear Button

Smart Disposables: Could This Be Birth of Internet of Everything?

Could EVERYTHING be “smart?” It may be happening sooner we thought, and with implications that are hard to fathom today.

That’s the potential with new technology pioneered by Shyam Gollakota, an assistant professor at the University of Washington.  For the first time, it would let battery- and cordless-less devices harvest signals from Wi-Fi, radio, or TV to communicate and power themselves.


For a long time, the most “out there” idea about IoT sensors has been Prof. Kris Pister’s “smart dust” concept, which aimed at a complete sensor/communication system in a package only one cubic millimeter in size. Pister argued that such devices would be so small and cheap that they could be installed — or perhaps even scattered — almost everywhere. The benefits could be varied and inconceivable in the past. According to Pister, possible applications could include:

  • “Defense-related sensor networks
    • battlefield surveillance, treaty monitoring, transportation monitoring, scud hunting, …
  • Virtual keyboard
    • Glue a dust mote on each of your fingernails.  Accelerometers will sense the orientation and motion of each of your fingertips, and talk to the computer in your watch.  QWERTY is the first step to proving the concept, but you can imagine much more useful and creative ways to interface to your computer if it knows where your fingers are: sculpt 3D shapes in virtual clay, play  the piano, gesture in sign language and have to computer translate, …
    • Combined with a MEMS augmented-reality heads-up display, your entire computer I/O would be invisible to the people around you.  Couple that with wireless access and you need never be bored in a meeting again!  Surf the web while the boss rambles on and on.
  • Inventory Control
    • The carton talks to the box, the box talks to the palette, the palette talks to the truck, and the truck talks to the warehouse, and the truck and the warehouse talk to the internet.  Know where your products are and what shape they’re in any time, anywhere.  Sort of like FedEx tracking on steroids for all products in your production stream from raw materials to delivered goods.
  • Product quality monitoring
    • temperature, humidity monitoring of meat, produce, dairy products
      • Mom, don’t buy those Frosted Sugar Bombs, they sat in 80% humidity for two days, they won’t be crunchy!
    • impact, vibration, temp monitoring of consumer electronics
      • failure analysis and diagnostic information, e.g. monitoring vibration of bearings for frequency signatures indicating imminent failure (back up that hard drive now!)
  • Smart office spaces
    • The Center for the Built Environment has fabulous plans for the office of the future in which environmental conditions are tailored to the desires of every individual.  Maybe soon we’ll all be wearing temperature, humidity, and environmental comfort sensors sewn into our clothes, continuously talking to our workspaces which will deliver conditions tailored to our needs.  No more fighting with your office mates over the thermostat.
  • Interfaces for the Disabled (courtesy of Bryndis Tobin)
    • Bryndis sent me email with the following idea: put motes “on a quadriplegic’s face, to monitor blinking & facial twitches – and send them as commands to a wheelchair/computer/other device.”  This could be generalized to a whole family of interfaces for the disabled.  Thanks Bryndis!”

Now imagine that a critical component of such a tiny, ubiquitous device was removed. Because it didn’t need a battery it could be even smaller and cheaper (because of cheaper and simpler radio hardware circuitry).

The goal is having billions of disposable devices start communicating,” Gollakota said (my emphasis).

You may remember that I’ve written before about my metaphor of a pre-IoT era of “Collective Blindness,” the universal inability to peer (literally or figuratively) inside things in the past, which forced us to create all sorts of work-arounds to cope with that lack of real-time data. Imagine how precise our knowledge about just about everything will be if Gollakota’s technology becomes commonplace.

.As Technology Review reported, the critical challenge is making it possible for a device lacking a traditional power source to communicate: “Transferring power wirelessly is not a new trick. But getting a device without a conventional power source to communicate is harder, because generating radio signals is very power-intensive and the airwaves harvested from radio, TV, and other telecommunication technologies hold little energy.”

The principle making the innovation possible is “backscattering,” reflecting waves, particles or signals back in the direction they came from, which creates a new signal.

The early results are encouraging. Gollakata has made a contact lens that can connect with a smartphone. Think I’ll pass on that one, but other devices he and his team have created include brain implants and “a flexible skin patch that can sense temperature and respiration, a design that could be used to monitor hospital patients.”  Marketers will love this one: a concert poster broadcasting a bit of the featured band’s music over FM radio!

Jeeva Wireless, Gollakata’s commercial spinoff, is using a variety of the technology, “passive Wi-Fi.” Devices using it can data up to 100 feet and connect through walls.

Tiny passive devices using backscatter could be manufactured for as little as a dollar. “In tomorrow’s smart home, security cameras, temperature sensors, and smoke alarms should never need to have their batteries changed.”

Gollakata sums up the potential impact: “We can get communication for free” (my emphasis).

That’s incredible, but in light of the continuing series of major DDoS attacks made possible by weak or non-existent IoT security measures, I must remind everyone that speed, power, and ubiquity aren’t everything: we also need IoT security, so I hope the low cost and ability to function without a dedicated energy source won’t obscure that need as well.


BTW: a MIT profile on Gollakata mentions one of his other, related, inventions, which I think would mesh beautifully with my SmartAging vision to help seniors age in place in better health.

It’s called  WiSee, which uses wireless signals such as Wi-Fi to “enable whole-home sensing and recognition of human gestures. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, WiSee can enable whole-home gesture recognition using few wireless sources (e.g., a Wi-Fi router and a few mobile devices in the living room).”

I love the concept for seniors, because (like Echo, which I’m finally getting!!) it doesn’t require technical expertise, which many seniors lack and/or find intimidating, to launch and direct automated devices. In this case, the activation is through sensing and recognition of human gestures. According to Gollakata,“’Gestures enable a whole new set of interaction techniques for always-available computing embedded in the environment. As an example, he suggests that a hand swiping motion in the air could enable a user to control the radio volume while showering – or change the song playing on the stereo in the living room while you are cooking in the kitchen.”

He goes on to explain:

“…. that the approaches offered today to enable gesture recognition – by either installing cameras throughout a home/office or outfitting the human body with sensing devices – are in most cases either too expensive or unfeasible. So he and his group members are skirting these issues by taking advantage of the slight changes in ambient wireless signals that are created by motion. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, he and his group have achieved the first gesture recognition system that works in those situations. ‘We showed that this approach can extract accurate information about a rich set of gestures from multiple concurrent users.”

Combine that with speaking to Alexa, and even the most frail seniors could probably control most of the functions in a smart home. Gollakota says that the approaches offered today to enable gesture recognition – by either installing cameras throughout a home/office or outfitting the human body with sensing devices – are in most cases either too expensive or unfeasible. So he and his group members are skirting these issues by taking advantage of the slight changes in ambient wireless signals that are created by motion. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, he and his group have achieved the first gesture recognition system that works in those situations. “We showed that this approach can extract accurate information about a rich set of gestures from multiple concurrent users, “he says.

Incredible work, professor!

Circular Company: Will Internet of Things Spark Management Revolution?

Could the IoT’s most profound impact be on management and corporate organization, not just cool devices?

I’ve written before about my still-being-refined vision of the IoT — because it (for the first time!) allows everyone who needs instant access to real-time data to do their jobs and make better decisions to share that data instantly —  as the impetus for a management revolution.

My thoughts were provoked by Heppelmann & Porter’s observation that:

“For companies grappling with the transition (to the IoT), organizational issues are now center stage — and there is no playbook. We are just beginning the process of rewriting the organization chart that has been in place for decades.”

If I’m right, the IoT could let us switch from the linear and hierarchical forms that made sense in an era of serious limits to intelligence about things and how they were working at thaFor companies grappling with the transition, organizational issues are now center stage—and there is no playbook. We are just beginning the process of rewriting the organization chart that has been in place for decades.t moment, to circular forms that instead eliminate information “silos” and instead give are circular, with IoT data as the hub. 

This article expands on that vision. I’ve tried mightily to get management journals to publish it. Several of the most prestigious have given it a serious look but ultimately passed on it. That may be because it’s crazy, but I believe it is feasible today, and can lead to higher profits, lower operating costs, empowering our entire workforces, and, oh yeah, saving the planet.

Audacious, but, IMHO, valid.  Please feel free to share this, to comment on it, and, if you think it has merit, build on it.


W. David Stephenson

The IoT Allows a Radical, Profitable Transformation to Circular Company Structure



W. David Stephenson

Precision assembly lines and thermostats you can adjust while away from home are obvious benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT), but it might also trigger a far more sweeping change: swapping outmoded hierarchical and linear organizational forms for new circular ones.

New org charts will be dramatically different because of an important aspect of the IoT overlooked in the understandable fascination with cool devices. The IoT’s most transformational aspect is that, for the first time,

everyone who needs real-time data to do their jobs better or
make better decisions can instantly 
share it.

That changes everything.

Linear and hierarchical organizational structures were coping mechanisms for the severe limits gathering and sharing data in the past. It made sense then for management, on a top-down basis, to determine which departments got which data, and when.

The Internet of Things changes all of that because of huge volumes of real-time data), plus modern communications tools so all who need the data can share it instantly. 

This will allow a radical change in corporate structure and functions from hierarchy: make it cyclical, with real-time IoT data as the hub around which the organization revolves and makes decisions.

Perhaps the closest existing model is W.L. Gore & Associates. The company has always been organized on a “lattice” model, with “no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.”  Instead, they use cross-disciplinary teams including all functions, communicating directly with each other. Teams self-0rganize and most leaders emerge spontaneously.

As Deloitte’s Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson wrote, “Continuing to invest in the future using yesteryear’s industrial blueprint is futile. The lattice redefines workplace suppositions, providing a framework for organizing and advancing a company’s existing incremental efforts into a comprehensive, strategic response to the changing world of work.”  Add in the circular form’s real-time data hub, and the benefits are even greater, because everyone on these self-organizing teams works from the same data, at the same time.

You can begin to build such a cyclical company with several incremental IoT-based steps.

One of the most promising is making the product design process cyclical. Designers used to work in a vacuum: no one really knew how the products functioned in the field, so it was hard to target upgrades and improvements. Now, GE has found it can radically alter not only the upgrade process, but also the initial design as well:

“G.E. is adopting practices like releasing stripped-down products quickly, monitoring usage and rapidly changing designs depending on how things are used by customers. ‘We’re getting these offerings done in three, six, nine months,’ (Vice-President of Global Software William Ruh said). ‘It used to take three years.’”

New IoT and data-analytics tools are coming on the market that could facilitate such a shift. GE’s new tool, “Digital Twins,” creates a wire-frame replica of a product in the field (or, for that matter, a human body!) back at the company. Coupled with real-time data on its status, it lets everyone who might need to analyze a product’s real-time status (product designers, maintenance staff, and marketers, for example) to do so simultaneously.

The second step toward a cyclical organization is breaking down information silos.

Since almost every department has some role in creation and sales of every product, doesn’t it make sense to bring them together around a common set of data, to explore how that data could trigger coordinated actions by several departments? 

Collaborative big-data analysis tools such as GE’s Predix, SAP’s HANA, and Tableau facilitate the kind of joint scrutiny and “what-if” discussions of real-time data that can make circular teamwork based on IoT-data sharing really achieve its full potential.

The benefits are even greater when you choose to really think in circular terms, sharing instant access to that real-time data not only companywide, but also with external partners, such as your supply chain and distribution network – and even customers – not just giving them some access later on a linear basis.  For example, SAP has created an IoT-enabled vending machine. If a customer opts in, s/he is greeted by name, and may be offered “your regular combination” based on past purchases, and/or a real-time discount. That alone would be neat from a marketing standpoint, but SAP also opened the resulting data to others, resulting in important logistics improvements. Real-time machine-to-machine (M2M) data about sales at the new vending machines automatically reroute resupply trucks to those machines currently experiencing the highest sales. 

With the IoT, sharing data can make your own product or service more valuable. With the Apple HomeKit, you can say “Siri, it’s time for bed,” and the Hue lights dim, Schlage lock closes, and Ecobee thermostat turns down. By sharing real-time IoT data, each of these companies’ devices become more valuable in combinations than they are by themselves.

Hierarchical and linear management is outmoded in the era of real-time data from smart devices. It is time to begin to replace it with a dynamic, circular model with IoT data as its hub.

Smart Infrastructure Logical Top Priority for IoT

The only issue Clinton and Trump can agree on is the need for massive improvements to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, especially its roads and bridges. But, please, let’s make it more than concrete and steel.

Let’s make it smart, and let’s make it the top priority for the IoT because of the trickle-down effects it will have on everything else in our economy.

Global economist Jeffrey Sachs stated the case eloquently in a recent Boston Globe op-ed, “Sustainable infrastructure after the Automobile Age,” in which he argued that the infrastructure (including not only highways and bridges but also water systems, waste treatment, and the electric grid) shaped by the automotive age has run its course, and must be replaced by one “in line with new needs, especially climate safety, and new opportunities, especially ubiquitous online information and smart machines.”

I’m currently reading Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel’s The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, and the Future of Urban Life, which makes the same argument: “The answer to urban expansion and diffusion — and the host of social consequences that they bring — may be to optimize, rather than increase, transportation infrastructure.”

The IoT is perfectly suited to the needs of a new information-based infrastructure, especially one which must balance promoting the economy and mobility with drastic reductions in greenhouse gasses (transportation produces approximately a third of the U.S.’s  emissions). It can both improve maintenance (especially for bridges) through built-in sensors that constantly monitor conditions and can give advance warning in time to do less-costly and less-disruptive predictive maintenance, and reduce congestion by providing real-time information on current congestion so that real-time alterations to signals, etc., can be made rather than depending on outmoded fixed-interval stoplights, etc.

Sachs points out that infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen since the Reagan years, and that it will require much more spending to bring it up to date.

A good place to look for a model is China.  The country already sports the largest concentration of M2M connections in the world: “74 million connections at the end of 2014, representing almost a third of the global base,” much of that in the form of smart bridges, smart rails, and smart grid, and critical because of the country’s rapid economic growth (Ratti cites a Beijing traffic jam that immobilized cars for an astounding 12 days!). Similarly, the government aims to have 95% of homes equipt with smart meters by next year.The country has used its investment in smart infrastructure to build its overall IoT industry’s ability to compete globally.

Sachs argues for a long-term smart infrastructure initiative:

“I propose that we envision the kind of built environment we want for the next 60 years. With a shared vision of America’s infrastructure goals, actually designing and building the new transport, energy, communications, and water systems will surely require at least a generation, just as the Interstate Highway System did a half-century ago.”

He says we need a plan based on three priorities to cope with our current national and global challenges:

“We should seek an infrastructure that abides by the triple bottom line of sustainable development. That is, the networks of roads, power, water, and communications should support economic prosperity, social fairness, and environmental sustainability. The triple bottom line will in turn push us to adopt three guiding principles.

First, the infrastructure should be “smart,” deploying state-of-the-art information and communications technologies and new nanotechnologies to achieve a high efficiency of resource use.

Second, the infrastructure should be shared and accessible to all, whether as shared vehicles, open-access broadband in public areas, or shared green spaces in cities.

Third, transport infrastructure should promote public health and environmental safety. The new transport systems should not only shift to electrical vehicles and other zero-emission vehicles, but should also promote much more walking, bicycling, and public transport use. Power generation should shift decisively to zero-carbon primary energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear power. The built environment should be resilient to rising ocean levels, higher temperatures, more intense heat waves, and more extreme storms.”

The IoT, particularly because of its ability to let us share real-time data that in turn can regulate the infrastructure, is ideally suited to this challenge. It’s time for Congress to not only spend on infrastructure but to do so wisely.

The result will be not only the infrastructure we need, but also a more robust IoT industry in general.