By: Dann Anthony Maurno
The Internet of Things (IoT) has had fits and starts since the term was coined around 1999 to describe how machines in the supply chain, without human support, can capture data about things moving around the world. Even at that time, the concept was nothing new. But increased attention and accessibility has many enterprises exploring the concepts for the first time in 2017.
“The Internet of Things was always there, but a lot of people are still trying to figure out: what’s the best, most cost-effective way to make it happen?” says Mazik Global Corporate Vice President Syed Fahad. The company’s recent technology partnerships and customer wins in the Microsoft channel offer a hint at where many companies may be headed as they consider a deliberate investment in IoT-related technology.
Mazik, a veteran Microsoft gold partner focused on IoT and remote monitoring, recently entered the US market and has won clients like Oregon-based Peterson Corp., which manufactures and operates land clearing and construction equipment. (Microsoft showcased Peterson Corp. in July, describing how it “disrupts the forest industry with IoT.”) And in June, Mazik announced a partnership with STW Technic, to collaborate in applying mobile machine connectivity on IoT implementations of MazikThings, Mazik’s IoT solution built on Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 and Azure platforms. The companies expect MazikThings/STW gateway integration to offer customers remote monitoring, predictive maintenance, and connected field service solutions.
MazikThings is an IoT software solution platform developed using Dynamics 365/CRM as an application development framework (xRM), along with Azure IoT Suite.
Together, MazikThings and STW Technic fulfill three of the four core components of any IoT scenario:
- Machine/equipment sensors (attached to the “things”). These capture real-time data (and is the final component that the Mazik/STW solution does not handle).
- Gateways like STW Technic provides. This hardware connects with machine to transmit the data to any data storage platform.
- The data storage platform which must be unlimited, given the volume historic data requirements (e.g., for tracking performance) and must make the latest data accessible. Mazik runs its solution in Microsoft Azure.
- An analytics, actions, and presentation layer, like MazikThings. This front-end solution presents the data in a meaningful way and enables actionable intelligence.
Mazik has had an IoT practice outside of the US for several years, chiefly serving oil and gas companies, where it remotely monitored pipelines using 30,000+ devices. The company observed a need in the US for IoT for manufacturing and supply chain as well as oil and gas, and began building a solution to deliver it.
Mazik’s expansion tracks that of the IoT itself. Gartner offers the most oft-cited forecasts for IoT, most recently that 8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2017, up 31 percent over 2016, and will reach 20.4 billion by 2020. The consumer segment (think “smart homes,” and stick-on sensors that help locate your car keys) represents 63 percent of endpoint spending currently; but 2017 is predicted to be a watershed year for business use, in which IoT spending is tracking at 57 percent of overall IoT spending. IoT services, which Mazik Global provides and which involve assisting business in designing, implementing and operating IoT systems, are tracking at $273 billion this year.
It was in fact Gartner that counseled Mazik to enter the US market – and to bring its IoT-related products (including MazikM2M) under the MazikThings umbrella for better product clarity.
What IoT was, is now, and could become
The phrase “Internet of Things” was coined at MIT’s Auto-ID Center by co-founder Kevin Ashton around 1999. At the time, Ashton was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble. As he once observed, “I’m definitely the world’s authority on what I meant by that, and it gets misunderstood.” Rather than ubiquitous wireless connectivity and control, he conceived IoT as a supply chain application wherein machines, without human support, capture data about things moving around the world.
Until the latest generation of solutions reached the market, the IoT had suffered from a lack of analytics, says Fahad. Equipment monitoring is old news, and manufacturing execution systems (MES) were sufficient gateways to do that. Barcoding was sufficient to monitor car chassis on a production floor, or pallets in a warehouse; but, says Fahad, that snapshot data ended at the equipment control panel. He says of sensor-enabled equipment, “Getting the data from the panels to somewhere where they can analyze and build on that is the part that’s missing; and that’s where we get involved, with prebuilt technology solutions and hardware solutions, and being able to analyze that data and push the control back to the equipment.”
What else the space required was partners to manage the ecosystem of products. As Fahad describes the three-pronged requirements of IoT implementation, they are:
- the equipment; is it IoT enabled already or must it be IoT enabled?
- a gateway solution like STW to integrate that data
- data storage and machine learning
That is a simplified breakdown, but “many times you have four players involved, or five, or nine, providing sensors, a gateway, dashboarding capability, storage,” says Fahad. “We realized that to ease that concern for customers, it was important that we take the lead; we take complete ownership of the relationships with different partners and provide an end-to-end solution.”
The STW relationship is especially strategic for Mazik Global in the US, says Fahad, because “STW is a default gateway solution for any instrument or equipment with Parker instruments,” which he estimates enables 80 percent of large heavy equipment machinery in the US. Sierra Wireless, with which Mazik Global is also a partner, has similar market penetration in Europe, the Middle East and other regions.
The semantics of control
A sort-of sticking point has been the element of control – specifically, remote control. In our May 4 podcast What IoT is, isn’t & could be, Nucleus Research Analyst Joseph Mathias made the point that true IoT involves bi-directional communication, which is not what most companies require; most need instrumentation via one-way sensor data and analytics engines.
Fahad does not distinguish between electronic or automated control and control by operators – that is, if the system responds to sensor data, or if an operator does so. Either way, the process ends in control, and MazikThings enables both. In the case of Peterson Corporation, a piece of land-clearing equipment may operate unattended in a remote forest; if it strays beyond a few yards, the system can automatically shut down that equipment.
Complex and automated control is certainly possible – for example, balancing oil and gas pipeline deliveries. But, a failover mechanism is an example of the most basic level of automated controls.
Perhaps it seems simplistic, but Fahad observes that “People most of the time expect the endgame in six weeks, which is not realistic or possible.” While Microsoft is a proponent of an enterprise-wide, accelerated digital transformation, a conventional wisdom has evolved in the IoT space: start small. You needn’t stay small. The company has created an assessment model to identify the smallest use case to make an impact.
He offers three examples from the Mazik customer base:
- Beginning with measuring flow levels across pipelines in the oil and gas industry before expanding into control.
- Remote equipment monitoring before expanding into predictive maintenance (which describes Peterson Corp.’s progression).
- Monitoring equipment vibration – essential to, for example, predict breakdown of a high-value steam turbine.
So, Mazik Global’s experience is that the IoT is plenty mature for some segments of Microsoft’s partners and their clients. The keys to success appear to be waiting for that maturity, and timing and scaling the opportunity with forethought.