IoT Data in Manufacturing - My Thoughts

I've been spending a lot of time recently thinking and literally dreaming about IoT (Internet of Things) applications. I wanted to share some of my current thinking on where we're at, what is happening, and what things might look like in the future.

Manufacturing Data Today (the boring part)

Within a manufacturing plant today, we can categorize the software into 3 high-level layers, which are not necessarily easy to delineate:

These systems are all extremely complex, and I'll never fully understand them. I'm primarily concerned the MES/SCADA portion dealing with the raw plant sensor data, how it flows, and how we turn that into meaningful information.

Optical sensors, pressure sensors, temperature sensors, and any other sensor you can imagine probably already exists and is in use within Manufacturing today. Manufacturing generates far more data than any other vertical. I suspect manufacturing has been one of the key drivers behind the dropping prices of sensors over the past few decades.

The communication network within your typical plant is based on standards that were defined over 4 decades ago. These networks exist to multiplex and centralize all of the data in the plant. Of course you'll find siloed subsystems that work independently, and aggregate data is sent to the central location. You'll find pockets of newer TCP/IP networks, but you'll also find a lot of low-speed serial communications.

Centralized Network Pattern

At the center of this system is a high-performance, time series database, known as a Historian. This is the center of the universe. All data is stored here. Security is handled through virtue of being only internally accessible.

For corporate-wide reporting, data needs to be aggregated from this historian, either through additional software, or through the ERP system and processes. This tends to be expensive, difficult, and incomplete due to the delta between the vast amount of data collected from the source, and the aggregated enterprise data.

The IoT / Cloud Transition (the fun part)

We have all of this data at the source, great. Now what? The real power is in unlocking the data.

There is some very low hanging fruit that is driving change today. Thanks to falling storage and compute costs in cloud environments, there is a big incentive to centralizing our data. Having all of our data aggregated in the cloud means that we can run massive, scalable jobs and generate reports at a scale that used to be difficult and costly. We can not only start to benchmark multiple facilities, we can drill down to any level. Slicing and dicing the data moves from being the job of a report writer, to that of the report viewer.

The cloud is where we aggregate storage and compute

Machine learning is the new frontier, and has far reaching implications. Previously, we had to know exactly what questions to ask, and having enough compute power to explore the data was expensive. Today, the cloud provides the massive horsepower we need to not just explore the data quickly, but to also glean insights that we never thought of.

Throughout history, we've spent a significant amount of time analyzing data, looking for reasons why and when things fail, trying to predict order volumes, trying to figure out how to maximize employee productivity, and the list goes on. These are questions that can be explored, and potentially optimized by data scientists and machine learning. Machine learning as a service makes it a commodity, available to any sized business, on-demand.

The Future (the exciting part)

I hope that once the dust settles, we'll have standards that allow devices from various companies to inter-operate in a reliable, secure manner.

Plummeting device costs are a given, so it's safe to assume we'll have more computing power available to us almost universally. To really get value from the data, we first need to allow devices to share it. If device A knows what device B is up to, Device A can operate more intelligently. This is a collective intelligence. This collective intelligence will also require a management hierarchy. A management hierarchy allows higher levels to have a greater understanding of what should be accomplished, and less about how it should be accomplished.

Device Collaboration & Supervision

Does this sound familiar? This is how employees are traditionally organized within an organization. As you go up the management chain, the goals become more focused on the overall organizational goals. As you go down the management chain, you get to where the real work happens, and there may be far less context in the larger organization.

Organizations are starting to evolve into a more networked design, and so will devices. Devices will have a roughly hierarchical organization, but will realize advantages to direct communications. Features like high availability can exist at lower levels.

In other words, we'll have redundancy, inter-device communication, but we'll also have a logical model that defines how the system operates. As a simple example, imagine if we had 3 temperature sensors measuring the same thing. Now imagine one of the sensors fails, or starts to report irregular values. Using a logical model that overlays the physical model allows us to define operation separating the concerns of the low-level details.

Virtual Sensor

Now, we want to get data from any point in the hierarchy to where it is needed. A machine operator needs to know what is happening in the machine in real-time. The supervisor needs to know how multiple lines are operating in real-time. The plant manager needs to know how the overall plant is running, again, in real-time. We'll also need to store historical data, operational reporting data, and so on.

Further Reading

Also check out my manufacturing projects on GitHub.

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Creating a Hackfest Culture

Software development is moving at an insane rate. Keeping up with a single technology area keeps getting more difficult. Just look at web technology. Grunt, Gulp, Yeoman, Angular, Bower... verb.js. How do we balance the need to be agile and continuously produce, with the productivity increases we get with new technology? There is a definite possibility that the latest library/framework/technique can change the way you write, built, or deliver code. You could understand it today, or allow your competition to understand it first.

I've seen a simple practice that can change how your organization researches new technologies or explores new concepts.

It's as simple as this:

Get a group of your developers together, throw out all of the rules, and just create something new.

That's it. That's all it takes, and I'm here to tell you firsthand that it absolutely works.


It sounds simple, but it's one of the most powerful tools you can use. Set aside a block of time like a week or a weekend, come up with a goal, and just work together to see what you can build. The space will be a mess of cords and the discussions will be crazy, but it's all part of the process. It's like a startup where the results are more important than process.

Hackfest vs Hackathon

I often see the term Hackfest and Hackathon used interchangeably. While the loose definitions overlap, I think there is some value in making a distinction.

Hackathons are intense and exhausting, and they’re meant to be. They’re usually a whole weekend of focused work, often with insufficient sleep, and too much encouragement to use masses of caffeine to stay awake and coding for 48 hours.

Sorry, but I’m not going to do that for my projects, let alone yours.

-Alex Bayley

Hackfest vs Hackathon

Hackathons is a combination of hack and marathon. Hackathons I've seen are typically competitions, which makes them much different than a hackfest.

Include Everyone

Feel free to include everyone. This might be a good time for testers to provide feedback early on in a new process. Managers can learn a lot at these events, and they often were full-time programmers at one point. I've found they get the most excited about getting a chance to get their hands dirty and create something again.

The best part of including everyone is that you can learn from each other. A group of attendees with a diverse set of backgrounds is ideal. Hacking with JavaScript developers made me go out an use Angular.js on a project. A IoT hackfest got me interested in using devices for collecting sensor data with Azure. Hacking alongside a Technical Fellow gave me a vision of the future. I have a vivid memory of all of these experiences.

We're too formal for a "hackfest"

The second I say hackfest, I'll occasionally get the person that starts rolling their eyes. Interestingly enough, if I call it an application accelerator, it starts to sound like a great idea. Call it whatever makes sense for your company and project. It's the concept that is most important.

Why they Work

Hackfests work amazingly well for a number of reasons:

  • There is little to no stress to produce anything. This could lead to something amazing, or fail miserably. Failing still means we've learned something important. I've never seen a person leave without having learned something significant.
  • The environment is different. Just developing in a different context can change the emotional state of the developer.
  • There are no irrelevant interruptions. A good hackfest will provide isolation from the steady stream of calls, emails, and other distractions that force everyone to switch contexts.
  • If nothing else, consider this a team building exercise.

The best part is that this doesn't have to be an isolated event. Run a hackfest, see if it works, and then try to replicate the success. The more regular you make your hackfests, the easier they become. The overhead of planning meals, hardware, and instructions become minimal.

Don't Stop Now!

If you run a successful hackfest, don't stop there! Schedule the next one. Keep the rhythm of innovation going. The amount of overhead at each one will decrease, and the value will increase.

Don't forget to share the results with everyone up your org chart. Showing that this is a powerful tool will give you buy-in for the next hackfests.


7 Lessons from Running a Hackathon


Summer of Tech 2013 Hackfest Image is Creative Commons

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Jason Young I'm Jason Young, software engineer. This blog contains my opinions, of which my employer - Microsoft - may not share.

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