The Era of Smart Everything
Published by : Industrial Automation
How smart devices, gadgets and systems are gradually changing every aspect of human life – industrial, commercial and domestic.
This the era of Smart Everything. Emerging technologies are redefining the way we live, commute, work, relax and much else. From handheld devices like the smartphone or tablet to massive robots that move tonnes of load effortlessly, technology is harnessed for human convenience. Smart commuting is easing the travel woes. Smart cities are much cleaner and more organised, aided by smart energy that powers smart factories to clear the air, literally. But how uniform is the Smart trend in India given the wide disparities across sectors and segments of the population? “In India, a lot of places have made certain components smart, such as transportation and energy usage, while others are still under development. But the importance of smart solutions in the urban context cannot be overlooked especially given the health emergency that we are facing now,” says Elias George, Partner and Head, Infrastructure, Government and Healthcare, KPMG in India. “The response of local administrations in the ongoing Covid-19 episode indicates that the ones who were already predisposed to the use of data and technology in decision making responded with alacrity to try and limit the spread of the pandemic,” he adds.
“One very common example is intelligent traffic management system that helps in adjusting signal timings in real time based on vehicle volume. At a system level we are talking about Smart Grid in energy companies and Smart Factories in manufacturing,” says Amit Saluja, Senior Director and Head, NASSCOM Centre of Excellence. “Now to answer the question on how uniform is the smart adoption in India, I will say at the product level, we are very much competing with the world in usage as we are one of the biggest markets for gadgets; but for processes and systems, which happens primarily in B2B segment, there is still lot more to be done,” he elaborates.
“Particularly in densely populated cities, clear signs of progress can be seen: no cash is needed todo the simplest business, large production companies are investing in a networked infrastructure and start-ups are working on intelligent answers to current problems. In addition, the country currently provides the third largest start-up ecosystem in the world,” says Rajesh Nath, Managing Director, VDMA India Services Private Limited, German Engineering Federation (VDMA). But he also points at the rural urban divide. “Here the disparities in the country become clear: while progress is visible in everyday situations from both the entrepreneurial and consumer perspective, in rural areas people are struggling to obtain water and electricity. Nevertheless, measured by the number of smartphone users, India is the second most networked country in the world after China.”
While it is obvious that the smart trends are not evenly spread across the country or even industry segments, what are the sectors best prepared for the smart revolution? “Core sectors involved directly in ‘being Smart’ like the electronics, telecommunications, etc., would grow fast, at least two folds by 2025. Sectors like agriculture, education, energy, financial services, healthcare, and logistics would be the ones to watch as they are compelled to adopt digital to reduce cost (to the extent of 20%) to stay competitive. A major shift is expected in the government led sector, if the present policies and learning from the Covid crisis continue,” opines Gangadhar Krishnamoorthy, Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP.
Mohini Sudumbrekar, Founder, FutureSkills Consultants, believes that the manufacturing sector, process control, packaging industry, energy sector, healthcare, auto sector, in fact all the industries where People, Processes and Products are involved are leading in smart trend. “Education and skills development, E-learning is a big industry and will keep the change alive and is certainly getting benefits of the smarter processes and connected campuses. Skills development across the geographies of organisation and universities is possible through digital media, connected resources and conferencing facilities,” she adds.
Talking of healthcare in general, Covid-19 in particular, can IoT play a bigger role? “The modern medical technology and the IoT components can be leveraged to enable a healthcare system to deal with disease outbreaks. However, they are fragmented and not yet seamlessly connected. Therefore, the system needs to be able to build up its infrastructure quickly so that the system can scale and expand for disease tracking, preventive quarantine, and the in-patient care of the infected,” asserts Krishna Shanbhag, Manager, Automation Projects.
“IoT will certainly not spare us from Covid-19 – absolutely not at this point. But there’s every chance IoT will play a bigger role in future epidemics, if we make some large modifications. The majority of these would not be simple. Most of the technology enthusiasts are checking out alternative approaches – systems as well as processes – to make sure that there is uninterrupted business continuity,” says Uthayan Elangovan, Founder & CEO/Consultant – PLM/IIoT/Author. “The emerging 5th generation mobile network technology will certainly provide a tremendous boost to tele-health; as well as open chances for business owners to set up back-end procedures in inaccessible remote locations, which in turn would also develop work opportunities,” he adds.
How does this progress of smart trends across various sectors fare in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic? “We have done considerably well as administrations across states and centre have responded in time while most people have acted in a responsible manner. While the current emergency is by no means over, we expect to continue on the current path and ensure that the situation does not get out of hand,” says Elias George. “Frankly I will say none could have prepared for pandemic like Covid-19, even our older generation also would have never experienced this level of impact. Right now everyone in world is in locked down state. But I agree we need to build some level of contingencies to take care of unexpected shift in market and automation can be the saviour here,” opines Amit Saluja.
When dealing with a crisis like Covid-19, given the shortages of essentials like masks and ventilators, is it possible to have Smart Factories that can at short notice switch over to manufacture something else? “The idea of being able to react quickly to current events seems attractive for the time being, as both the demand and the supply side benefit from it. But how useful are flexible production lines if they do not fit the vision or mission of a company? To what extent do you determine the flexibility and agility of these lines, and should companies be able to produce everything necessary in case of doubt? The idea is nice, but the additional flexibility naturally comes at a price, which is gladly paid in times of crisis, but otherwise by nobody,” says Rajesh Nath.
Gangadhar Krishnamoorthy is of the view that the way some of the manufacturers have quickly transformed their manufacturing facilities to produce masks and ventilators is worth noting. “Sugar factories, automotive assembly lines have used their basic infrastructure to take a paradigm shift from normal and quickly respond to the demands. That is innovation. The way railways transformed their coaches to isolation wards is another example,” he stresses. “Manufacturing companies have already started acting and producing the ventilators, this can be a very good opportunity to generate new sources of incomes,” agrees Mohini Sudumbrekar, and points out how small business and entrepreneurs have started producing masks which are required currently and as foreseen in future too. “All these units can be connected to make it a smart activity so that there is no shortage of the raw material and ensure prompt supply chain using IoT and smart techniques. A proper data management can also done using AI algorithms to know the trend and ensure proper actions. We are all aware that many innovations took place during World War II. This is nothing less than a war,” she emphasises!
Adversity brings out the best in man, it is said. Will the Covid-19 crisis prove a boon to make a really Smart World? “Yes,” says Rajesh Nath. “Especially now, due to the necessity of finding fast and sustainable solutions to issues such as shutdowns and social distancing. There will definitely be a change towards a Smart World. However, it remains to be seen whether this necessity will be seen in the long term, both privately and by companies. The question is also which development is ultimately attributable to Covid-19, for which Covid-19 was an incubator and which have nothing to do with the virus,” he elaborates. “This event will clearly push the world towards a higher level of digitalisation. Whether this would imply a smart world is still an open question, though we are likely to witness more efficiency across manufacturing and supply chains, opines Elias George. “This would also imply the inclusion of resilience in the production and delivery of goods and services ensuring running factories in the face of emergencies,” he adds.
According to Gangadhar Krishnamoorthy, the Covid-19 crisis means a huge downturn in economic activity, and the world appears to be heading inevitably into a deep global recession for now. But he is optimistic when he says: “On the other hand this situation will hopefully also open up unexpected opportunities – for new suppliers, new customers and new contracts. Technocrats aren't panicking but looking for solutions, even if the mood is tense and the economic consequences are still unclear.”
“The coronavirus started out as a health pandemic, but the outbreak will create long-lasting changes to the way we live and work. This situation will present opportunity majorly more sophisticated and flexible use of technology. We are in the early stages of the evolution of the world into an intelligent system that’s quick-to-react to any unexpected disruption,” says Krishna Shanbhag, who is of the opinion that the coronavirus outbreak can be expected to speed up the usage of Industry 4.0 tools such as artificial intelligence and mobile supercomputing. “There is also the promise of nurturing talent to support higher-value manufacturing processes including nano manufacturing where humans supervise from a remote operations centre in a clean room away from the dirt and dust typical of heavy-duty factories, operating from the cloud to control machines who speak to each other in another part of the smart factory. This trend is in step with manufacturers looking to attract the millennial worker and upskill older workers,” he adds.
Uthayan Elangovan, concurs with this view and adds that one positive fallout of this scourge could be the help to bridge the smart digital gap, helping various fields use the benefits, and quotes the example of academics, where physical infrastructure like classrooms are now idle. “Most instructors and trainees around the world were waiting to adopt digital classrooms or IoT enabled smart classrooms without much success. Professionals believe that Covid-19 has accelerated the process. Most educational institutions and universities are discovering expedient solutions to continue teaching, though this also needs high quality digital accessibility. There are also other aspects,” he says.
So as the world becomes smarter, how long will the smart phone continue to be the device of choice for connectivity? What are the alternatives? “Till now we have the smartphone that helps transfer data from one person to other or to systems but this will not be enough to meet our demands. Wearable devices will make every individual smarter in future,” says Amit Saluja. “We will need data acquisition devices also along with data transfer as the variety of data requirement will be lot more. Physical health and environmental parameters will become must to track and analyse and that’s where wearable devices will play an important role,” he explains.
Mixed reality, is poised to become the next major computing platform,” concurs Mohini Sudumbrekar. “Wearables have already carved a path for profound technology transformation for industries in healthcare, apparels, and fitness. Apple has launched Smart watch, Snap is working on Augmented Reality and emotion recognition. The digital world is not just confined to screen, but merging of real and virtual worlds. Virtual Reality is fully immersive, places users in digital environment,” she adds. “Smart glasses coupled with AI have the potential to be one of the most disruptive technologies to replace smartphone soon. AI powered smart glasses will
enable hands-free, instantaneous communication, as well as augmented, virtual & mixed reality services (AR/VR/MR). These glasses could be paired with wearables (sensors inside clothes), attachable (digital devices attached to the skin) and implantable (sensor technology implanted
inside the body),” says Krishna Shanbhag.
“Smart virtual aide by use of artificial intelligence and other innovations would become an essential need of everyday life. Modern technology is advancing and increasing rapidly and the need to always hold on to the smart phone as well as the risk of losing it would become history. Since the Apple watch and various other gadgets similar to it have actually been released, I have had this prediction that the phone will ultimately have to become obsolete” concludes Uthayan Elangovan.
(Note: The responses of various experts featured in this story are their personal views and not necessarily of the companies or organisations they represent. The full interviews are hosted online at https://www.iedcommunications.com/interviews)