The Economist recently reported (April 6, 2017) that Royal Dutch Shell used what they refer to as “virtual drilling” to allow engineers in Canada to drill an oil well in Argentina, 6,000 miles away. The computers in Canada used real-time data from Argentina to design the well and control the drilling, resulting in a well that cost one-third of what it did a few years ago.
This combined use of data, remote sensors and automation is certainly not limited to the oil industry. We can see it everywhere from a wireless thermometer, which texts you when your steak is ready, to sophisticated data gathering systems on critical aerospace components, which help optimize performance during use and predict when maintenance will be required. All of these are examples of “The Internet of Things” (IoT).
The predicted growth of IoT in the coming years is staggering. IHS Markit predicts the IoT market will grow from an installed base of 15.4 billion devices in 2015 to 30.7 billion devices in 2020 and 75.4 billion in 2025, and McKinsey estimates IoT has a potential economic impact of $2.7 to 6.2 trillion dollars until 2025.
How will IoT change how industry and academia consider the traditional engineering disciplines?
1. Engineers will need to understand sensors, wireless transmitters and control systems.
Traditionally, we think about engineering in a siloed manner—there are electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, civil engineers, and so on. Each one stays within their own field, dabbling in the other disciplines when required, but not really playing an active role. The trend toward a holistic, system-level, multi-physics approach to design is slowly changing this thinking, and IoT in engineering will blur the boundaries even more.
Engineers of all disciplines will have to learn a lot more about sensors and wireless transmitters. They’ll need to know which ones to use, what to measure, where to place them, how to keep them working properly under different environmental conditions, how to make sure they don’t interfere with one another or other wireless devices, how to comply with Federal Communications Commission emissions regulations and more. The electrical engineers will likely still design them, but everyone will need to have a working knowledge about how best to use them.
In addition, with smart systems come control—how the sensor data is fed back into the system to create the desired response. All engineering disciplines will benefit from an understanding of control theory. For example, civil engineers have used passive dampers for a long time to minimize the vibration of skyscrapers. No real controls knowledge is required for this. As these structures get taller, active controls are necessary, with damping regulated based on data fed back from instrumentation located throughout the structure. To succeed with these implementations, civil engineers must now have a good handle on data acquisition, sensing, feedback loops and all other aspects of control theory.
2. Engineers will need to be comfortable with big data, probability and statistics.
Sensors collect data—petabytes of it. The ability to work with all of this information and parse it down to a meaningful, actionable form will be critical to the engineer’s role. This ranges from acquiring the data, handling the data, statistically analyzing the data and being able to relate the data to physical processes to draw accurate predictive conclusions.
It’s unclear who came up with the quote popularized by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” but it is often used to cast doubt upon the conclusions drawn through statistical analysis. Engineers must learn to navigate through the statistical minefield to fully parse the richness of the data, use what is relevant and discard the remainder. If executed properly, the result will be robust, adaptable products and systems that can respond and react to a variety of environmental inputs and conditions.
3. Engineers will need to incorporate IoT as part of the fundamental design of a product.
Understanding sensors and big data will not be of much use unless engineers use their benefits in the products they design. From a competitive perspective, products that measure and can effectively use those measurements as a predictive tool will have the advantage. An organization that can reliably predict via actual data when a component must be replaced will be in a much better position than one that provides a standard service interval. Companies working in the traditional “nuts and bolts” world will need to include software and smart electronics in their products, or risk being left behind.
For an engineer, this means thinking about designing products where sensors and the data they produce are part and parcel of the design, rather than an afterthought. In this way, designing for and incorporating IoT can be done from the beginning, where it can deliver the biggest benefits. It’s one thing to slap a sensor on a device after the fact to identify a problem. The game changer occurs when the product is designed from Day One to interpret the sensor information and is able to adapt itself in real time based on the accumulated volume of data.
The ultimate benefit will be realized when we can combine real sensor data with virtual simulation. This “digital twin” concept uses physics-based models reflecting actual operating conditions to create a digital representation of any piece of real equipment or system. Computational exercise of the digital twin can be used to enhance performance, identify failure modes performance problems, predict maintenance schedules and more, essentially optimizing all aspects over the lifetime of the system.
To summarize, the IoT brings a plethora of opportunities to improve our products, infrastructure and quality of life. For engineers, it brings challenges to expand their horizons, collaborate more and develop their designs with an intensified comprehensive scope.
Over the past several years engineering schools have been trending to a more multi-physics approach toward educating engineers in response to industry requirements. I am confident that they will also make the required changes to prepare young engineers to meet the challenges and opportunities of IoT. For the rest of us, it may be prudent to invest some time in continuing education.
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