The Internet of (Green) Things
Recently I was at a conference on manufacturing where I was caught in in an avalanche of buzzwords âŚ cloud, big data, internet of things, industrial internet, connectivity, connected revolution and so on. This feeding frenzy of connectivity and data is driven by a number of things, real and imagined. Businesses see opportunity for enhanced productivity and reduced time from design to production. Other businesses see opportunities for providing services and products to an informed customer – all at much greater speed. Others still see a chance to offer analysis capabilities to convert the âfirehose stream of dataâ to a manageable set of results and metrics.
For example, in the manufacturing domain, General Electric is driving the creation of an âindustrial internetâ which GE expects will define how âindustrial equipment with sophisticated sensors will be linked over a network that connects people to machines and machines to one another to boost efficiency.â They wonât be talking to refrigerators, at first, but jet engines to indicate potential maintenance requirement or, closer to the factory, failure potential and maintenance needs of sensor-enabled machinery on the factory floor.
In the manufacturing space. a leading commercial computer aided manufacturing (CAM) software provider, DP Technology/ESPRIT, has introduced a cloud-enabled tool path planning capabilityÂ – cloud-enabled CAM. The ESPRIT MachiningCloud Connection gives programmers (the smart folks that create the instructions and select the tooling to allow sophisticated numerically controlled machine tools to create the complex physical components that make up manufactured products) access to complete and up-to-date tooling product data, cutting hours of programming time by eliminating manual tool creation. This would have been done with physical paper catalogs of tools, configurations, cutting inserts, and other peripheral hardware to make it work (think of shopping at Sears or Target before websites, online catalogs or Amazon! If you are old enough to recall Searâs paper catalog which was like a phone book for a large city, if you are old enough to remember phone books too, it is an interesting but long and manual process!). This capability simplifies the selection of cutting tools and, better yet,Â offers a list of recommended cutting tools based on machining features and machining sequences that are planned. Finally, the programmer or manufacturing engineer can simulate the machine operation and behavior with accurate 3D models of tool components and assemblies.
In the design and collaboration space, Autodesk has introduced Autodesk 360 for design innovation and collaboration.Â More than just two dimensional âdrafting,â this cloud-based tool that provides free online data storage and a powerful, secure set of tools that improves the way engineers and others can design, visualize, and simulate anywhere and with âvirtually infinite computing power.â This also simplifies collaboration among co-designers and customers, and streamlines workflows.
And then, of course, things that talk to you. Top of this list is probably the Nest thermostat recently acquired by Google, Inc. By use of training cycles, and observing your âbehavior,â it learns what temperatures you like and builds a personalized schedule. Nest says if one teaches it efficient temperatures for a few days within a week, the thermostat will start setting temperature schedules on its own. And, with the Nest app you can connect to the thermostat from a smartphone and, if arriving home early (or later) change the temperature miles from home.
So what is the internet of things anyway? My favorite first âgo toâ source is a Google search which, usually, gets a Wikipedia hit right off âŚ for âinternet of thingsâ Wikipedia defines the term (and acronym IoT) as referring to âuniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure.âÂ Apparently this term has been in discussion since the early â90s and was formally proposed by Kevin Ashton in 1999 (Ashton, Kevin, “That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing, in the real world things matter more than ideas,” RFID Journal, 22 June 2009.) though the concept has been discussed since at least 1991. Wikipedia goes on to explain that In 1994, the Internet of Things was known as âcontrol networks,â which Reza Raji discussed in an IEEE Spectrum article as â[moving] small packets of data to a large set of nodes, so as to integrate and automate everything from home appliances to entire factories.â
Home appliances to entire factories! All communicating with other devices, computers and, presumably, people.
But what might the effect of this integration and resulting actions be? Better productivity? Increased consumption? Smart consumption? Smart and sustainable consumption? It depends.
Capitalizing on this drive to connectivity Amazon has recently introduced their own âsmart phone.” The New York Times article characterizes this as âa device that tries to fulfill the retailerâs dream of being integrated into consumersâ lives at every possible waking moment â whether they are deciding where to eat, realizing they need more toilet paper or intrigued by a snatch of overheard music.â Meaning âŚ sell, sell, sell!
So, are we making progress or not? A quote from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard in a conversation to an audience of hundreds of CSR officers and aspiring eco-preneurs may offer some insight. He said âIf these Fortune 500 companies are now cleaning up their act, then why is the world still going to hell?â âThe elephant in the room is growth: you make an energy-efficient refrigerator, so then you buy two of them. Not one public company will voluntarily restrict growth to save the planet.âÂ Well âŚ that does not sound very encouraging.
So, back to the discussion about the circular economy.
Can the âinternet of thingsâ be part of the circular economy? Can this connectedness push consumers to consider more sustainable behavior, or create products that provide increased value with lower impact, or allow effective recovery of resources at end of life?
First reaction is, again,Â âŚ it depends!Â If this pushes consumers to by more âimpactfulâ products because they are or can be connected but donât offer proportionally increased value âŚ then this is not a good sign and Yvon Chouinard will cry foul! If the connectedness can drive a reduction in impact (due to better efficiency, or more effectiveness, consumption only when in use and at reduced rates of consumption, for example) then probably yes. Meaning, if it can affect consumer behavior in a positive direction then this is worth exploring.
This difference between consumer actions and consumer wishes for sustainable consumption is commonly referred to as the âgreen gap.â Weâll discuss this more in future articles.
So we will need to be careful about tracking the cost-benefit or, at least, providing some feedback to the consumer on the performance of the product or, sadly, this will simply be another round of technology driving increased consumption. And thatâs not circular.
David Dornfeld is the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley. He leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability (LMAS), and he writes the Green Manufacturing blog. This article was republished with permission by David Dornfeld.
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