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3 IIoT project risks and how to avoid them

Article published on Industrial Ethernet Book, July/August 2021

IoT in an industrial setting (IIoT) is widely becoming recognized as a game-changer for any organization in the manufacturing or transportation of goods sectors. A study from Juniper Research suggests that IIoT connections are likely to reach 37 billion by 2025 as businesses look to take advantage of its transformative impact on operations.

With the promise of operational efficiencies and resolving difficult business challenges, IIoT is already helping organizations boost their processes in a variety of different ways. The use cases for IIoT are endless and include predictive maintenance to reduce equipment downtime; the use of sensors to manage stock in warehouses to reduce waste and free up resources; automated quality controls; and even equipment monitoring in remote or difficult to reach locations.

However, although we’re starting to see industry take advantage of smart warehouses, automation, and connected logistics, many businesses are reluctant to adopt IIoT as they are concerned over the security of these connected devices.

And it’s not just security that is hindering widespread IIoT adoption. Integration of legacy equipment with IoT and a lack of open standards are also causing industry-wide headaches. Here, we look at these three main barriers to IIoT adoption and consider how business can successfully navigate these complex hurdles:

IoT security

This is the number one concern for most businesses considering adopting IoT and it’s no wonder, as connected devices continue to be developed at a fast pace. In the race to get these devices to market, security standards or protocols can sometimes over-looked by manufacturers.

Firewall perimeters and VPNs often used to be enough to secure our networks from a data breach but not anymore thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices and connected applications, along with the increasingly sophisticated levels of attacks that businesses are being subjected too.

IoT devices are connected and interconnected into a network and designed to collect and store growing volumes of data. From the edge to the cloud, security needs to be considered at each step as smart devices connect to each other, the Internet, and the cloud to exchange data.

Data breach fears continue to be the main reason that many businesses are slow to adopt IIoT technologies and for good reason, as an attack could cause the business to go offline for days or even longer. Creating a totally secure IIoT deployment is not a simple task, especially when it’s a large, globally-distributed deployment. To prevent a cyberattack from happening in an IIoT environment, organizations must make careful buying decisions from the outset and prioritize products with in-built security above all else.

Lack of open standards

System integration is a big challenge for the IIoT ecosystem, where are all parts need to work together. However, with so many different devices, operating systems and programming languages deployed on edge infrastructures, integration is complex. Standardization of IIoT protocols and technologies appears to be a long way from happening.

Most IoT edge solutions are based on integrated sensors, actuators, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), field buses and protocols and it’s often a combination of new and legacy operational technology that presents the first challenge. Some of these technologies and protocols are open standards-based, but many are not. Instead, they are proprietary and specific to certain vendors and vertical solutions.

This lack of open standards causes another issue for IoT security - creating a vulnerable IoT ecosystem with vendors forced to use a variety of hardware, software, third party services and APIs and patch methods. Just one unsecure device could cause network vulnerability and to avoid protocols being abused. Organizations need IoT solutions with secure identity, authentication, and encrypted communications. To encourage more wider adoption of IoT, device manufacturers and software developers must work towards providing a security model based on open and industry standards to ensure platform interoperability and best practice.

Legacy equipment and IoT

An organization using IoT solutions to collect data in the field will need to connect legacy equipment such as industrial machinery, in-vehicle components, and power meters to the Internet. The most effective (but expensive) way to ensure seamless integration between field equipment and IoT applications would be to replace old kit with new IoT-ready versions. We see this practice fairly frequently in the home where consumers replace their old boilers with a smart heating solution enabling data collection and remote access and monitoring. Although we are starting to see equipment replaced with IoT-ready versions in industry, it’s likely to be a slow and costly process.

For start-up businesses in the sector, choosing IoT-ready equipment is a no brainer, however for long-established businesses replacing kit that remains in good working condition may not be an option. Instead, many organizations are retrofitting their assets with sensors, smart devices, and gateways to get their IIoT project underway. While this works in practice, the same issues around security and interoperability exist, and this complication is something we frequently see hinder organizations from rolling out IIoT deployments.

Navigating these risks

Unfortunately, there is not a one size fits all solution that will work across every environment. And although industrial applications of IoT are an exciting proposition, navigating the associated risks can be a complex, expensive and time-consuming exercise. However, organizations don’t need to put their IIoT project plans on hold or cancel them altogether, instead they should focus on these barriers to adoption and plan for creating a secure, and integrated end-to-end IIoT deployment from the outset.

Organizations firstly need to work out what they want to achieve and how IIoT will help them do it. The next step is to work with best-of-breed solution providers or partners who can help them identify the products that will enable secure, interoperable IoT in their specific environment, whether that’s through retrofitting assets with IoT technologies or choosing smart solutions to replace end-of-life legacy equipment.

Those organizations that fail to successfully navigate these risks and delay IoT adoption risk being left behind by their competitors. Rather than fear the potential threat that come with IIoT projects, building security into the overall IoT architecture, and solving interoperability challenges will enable organizations to successful get their projects off the ground and take advantage of the innovative operational efficiencies they enable.

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