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A brave new world ahead for machine-to-machine communications

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 10:34 p.m.

There's another Internet on the way, and you're not invited to take part.

Direct, online machine-to-machine communication could transform industry in the next 10 years, much in the way that online person-to-person connections transformed retail and social networking, executives and entrepreneurs predict.

This industrial Internet, sometimes called the “Internet of things” or the “Internet of everything,” could allow jet engines to monitor themselves and request maintenance before they break, or a locomotive to process geography and train schedules to pick the perfect speed for a cross-country journey.

According to General Electric, one of the world's largest manufacturers, the efficiencies could be worth as much as $15 trillion to the global economy — or about as much as the gross domestic product of the United States.

“The music industry, the book industry, retail have been foundationally changed because of the Internet and software,” said Bill Ruh, vice president of GE's software division. “What we see happening now is those Internet-based technologies are having the same disruptive effect on industry.”

Fix it before it breaks

Already it fundamentally changed the way one North Fayette manufacturer does business.

Industrial Scientific began making gas detectors in 1985. In 1999, it gambled on the burgeoning online market and established iNet, a computer system for customers to calibrate and maintain the detectors.

That experiment became a business model.

“We now have about 70,000 instruments in 21 countries on the iNet platform,” said Justin McElhattan, the company's CEO. “We've basically turned our company inside-out.”

Customers buy the device and subscribe to iNet. At the end of a workday, workers put the detectors into docks to charge batteries and send information to a data center.

The volume of data and ability to process it distinguishes the industrial Internet from the more-familiar consumer Internet, and companies are only beginning to figure out what to do with this vast trove of information.

Industrial Scientific added a software division to analyze iNet's data. McElhattan believes it can predict for a customer when something is about to go wrong.

The company's data center can calibrate and run diagnostic checks on the gas detectors and if one appears ready to break, it can send a replacement before it fails. That potential — to make the aphorism “if it isn't broke, don't fix it” obsolete — prompted McElhattan to set a lofty goal.

“We're dedicating our careers to eliminating death on the job this century,” McElhattan said, by flagging companies when something could cause an injury.

Small tweaks, big savings

The technology could save trillions of dollars in the meantime.

Among GE's forays into the industrial Internet is a trip optimizer for locomotives.

The system allows trains to connect to a rail system network. An onboard computer analyzes GPS data about terrain and the location, direction and speed of other trains. With this information, the train can use downhill stretches to accelerate and plan its cruising speed so it won't have to stop for other trains.

“We could end up saving anywhere from 2 (percent) to 10 percent of fuel ... on that locomotive,” said Ruh.

Another system connects wind turbines, allowing their computers to measure wind speed and direction and share that information. The windmills “begin to work together,” tweaking their direction. Power generation in some wind farms increased as much as 10 percent, Ruh said.

Even small savings can add up. Airlines could earn $3 billion by saving 1 percent of fuel costs through more efficient operation, Ruh said.

In an industry that made $7 billion last year, that would be a 40 percent increase in profit.

Improving health care

What works for machines might work for human bodies. Technology startups such as San Francisco-based Fitbit and Oakland-based PHRQL allow people to use watch-size devices and mobile phones to monitor, transmit and analyze data about their bodies and behavior.

People with diabetes, for example, can use PHRQL's software to send health care providers information about meals or trips to the gym, enabling them to monitor their health in real time instead of waiting until a doctor's appointment.

The technology gives them access to a social network of people with the disease, said Jeevan Pendli, one of PHRQL's founders.

PHRQL found that diabetics who take advantage of information from peers controlled the disease better than loners.

“They connect with each other and make friends with each other and share their pains, and share how they've overcome some situations,” Pendli said.

The country spends $2.8 trillion on health care, a figure that could double in five years, Pendli said. Manageable, preventable chronic diseases drive that increase more than anything else, he said.

Ruh predicts this model of real-time, online health care will become as commonplace as shopping online.

Security concerns

As with any system, however, the larger and more connected it gets, the more dangerous it can become.

A tech-savvy burglar could mine data from appliances sharing information about their use online and determine when a homeowner is away. A fully-connected field of wind turbines could allow a hacker to sabotage an entire wind farm.

Such concerns must be dealt with, Ruh said, because the marriage of the industrial and Internet revolutions is inevitable.

With potential to save trillions of dollars, Ruh said, “It's not like you can stop this.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or

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