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Surfing the Internet of Things: Industry still sorting out complex network

Defining the Internet of Things is like describing a platypus: a complex, highly adaptable animal.

Ask experts and you might hear, “The Internet of Things is a model that uses networks of Internet-enabled devices without human intervention.” Or: “The Internet of Things is manufactured things connected to the Internet.”

From desktop telephones to handheld smartphones to heart signatures that unlock smartphones, IoT is not new.

But the rapidly evolving uses for smart sensor technology and the abundance of data being generated is making the Internet of Things increasingly part of the worldwide lexicon.

It is exemplified in chairs that monitor vital signs. It’s used with sensors that predict when machines, buildings and bridges will require maintenance. And IoT is involved when chips enable companies to remotely track products from assembly to delivery — or homes that will allow people to age in place.

The biggest IoT players are large brands headquartered elsewhere: Google Inc.,Amazon.com Inc., General Electric,Medtronic Inc., IBM Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., and Microsoft Corp. However, many major Michigan-based companies — Ford Motor Co., Dow Chemical Co., Herman Miller — and state-based start-up firms are vying for a slice of the IoT pie.

There are industry-specific guesstimates as to what intelligent devices will bring us. With reports that at least 35 percent of U.S. manufacturers already are using sensors to collect data and enhance operations, MarketsandMarkets.com predicts the industrial IoT market alone will reach $151 billion by 2020. On the health side, Business Insider reports there will be 646 million connected IoT healthy devices by 2020 and MarketResearch.com expects that health market to reach $164.24 billion in the same period.

However, prospects for heightening brand loyalty through customization, data procurement and sharing — as well as increasing productivity and cost and time savings — has companies sharing ideas, collaborating and cultivating new IoT applications.

For example, Zeeland-based Herman Miller, which makes furniture, can help businesses make real estate decisions. Faurecia, an auto supplier with its innovation center in Holland, wants to monitor drivers’ health.

Paul Riser, TechTown Detroit

Essentially, IoT will create better solutions for enterprises to conduct and do business, said Paul Riser, director of technology-based entrepreneurship at TechTown Detroit.

“If they can become more understanding from an analytical and ‘predictalytics’ perspective of operations, of utility, of office space, of the environments we work in, of machinery and automation, of health delivery systems… we can be more proactive in understanding trends in where care and focus should be delivered, then I think we all become better solution providers,” he said.

The IoT puzzle of possibilities has analysts continually revising IoT’s worth. Research firm Gartner predicts there will be 21 billion connected devices in 2020 compared with 5 billion devices today. In June, International Data Corp. said IoT spending will grow from $655.8 billion in 2014 to $1.7 trillion in 2020 with nearly 30 billion connected devices.

“We have no idea the true magnitude of the Internet of Things today because we don’t know what’s going to change the habit of businesses,” said Tim Shinbara, vice president for manufacturing technology at The Association For Manufacturing Technology (AMT) in McLean, Va. Used properly, IoT can reduce barriers to information about inventory or machinery when it handles routine, non-value-add work and lets employees and other resources focus on developing the next better thing, he said.

Boston-based Lux Research Inc. has nine separate groups analyzing IoT properties, including digital health and wellness, sensors, autonomous systems, intelligent buildings and wearables.

Said senior analyst John Melnick: “There’s much upside to the Internet of Things, but it’s really about finding the specific use cases and opportunities.” For example, he said, the “Internet of Healthy Things” is about companies understanding the patient, customizing treatment and augmenting behavior rather than looking at broad strokes to predict problems. “If you start to understand glucose levels, you can understand not just when someone would need insulin but, more importantly, what they should eat to prevent an upcoming diabetic episode,” Melnick said.