Opinion: The internet of things, IoT, will make important innovations and lots of e-waste.
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Not many know this, but I worked for the corporation that delivered today's winning RFID patents. This company IP was then bought by IBM because it's cheaper to buy working inventions than doing all the inventing bits and making stuff work and stuff.
Not just one company had a solution for RFID, there were many that had the technology to perform essentially the same basic task. In the free market, as in Highlander, “There can be only one!” rings true when it comes to industry standards. The company with the winning patents wins, the rest lose; investors die, scientists cry, designers ask, "why?".
My tiny cubicle was often a place where vice presidents would ask me to make stuff up in minutes. They saw what my advanced design software could do, so they skipped the engineering department and tapped on my shoulder. This sometimes made my supervisors and managers upset, but I told them to take it up with upper managements superiors.
These projects were always fun. I would get a team in my cubicle directing me to quickly put together a new design for proposals. I would have a PhD scientist and a VP of sales in my cubical asking me to model this, modify this and redesign that. Sometimes, in less than one hour, I could deliver them a computer animation and some glossy hard copies of a specific design consideration. They wanted these quickly to show potential customers why our solution was the winner.
The industry was transitioning from 2D to 3D. It was painful since I was trained on "3D NASA design software", SDRC, then dropped back into a 2D AutoCAD era of barbaric 2D design practices. In the industry, our sales team loved my 3D designs. They could use a simple picture or animation to impress on customers why to choose us. In last minute communications to secure winning contracts, the ideas were flying. The competition would sweat trying to sell with 2D drawings, the customers loved the pretty pictures.
These contracts were big, so when I was tapped on the shoulder sometimes it was pretty frantic - “We have a $750,000,000 factory design bid and I need this in an hour, no pressure.”. In Rockford Illinois, I was referred to as "The Cowboy".
One morning, in 1999, while sitting in front of my two design stations, a senior VP of sales tapped me on the shoulder and kind of said “I need you to put this thing on that thing”. So I said I would. He smiled and asked if he could get a 3D printed model. I looked back and said, “No problem, eh”. This was America, so they loved that, eh.
I looked at the supplied engineering print and the usual “TOP SECRET” was in the title block of a redacted engineering drawing. I concluded that it was a US Army drawing, being familiar with standards from UK, Germany, China, Japan, Brazil, France and even some from Russia. I started and made a 3D model, and then digitally assembled it to a modular palletized high-lifecycle manufacturing fixture.
What I was doing was putting the first RFID tag, in civilian manufacturing, on a factory fixture. It clicked in my head that "they" were going to monitor part flows and unique manufacturing processes using RFID tags. This was another key step in LEAN Manufacturing. Real-time feedback in operations management. Plug these bits into business intelligence systems and presto: Smart Factory!
I guess technology was first used by US Army to physically account and identify all logistics contents for transportation on C5 military transports. The tags were also provided better security for high-cost toys, such as stinger missiles, etc. Seems the Army was having theft "issues", so they enabled real-time satellite tracking on high-risk assets.
It was simple, slap a tag on "X", program what "X" was. When US Army was in deployment, they had real-time cargo counts, weights, descriptions, etc.. Important information for the cargo master and the security team. Stealing from the army just got very hard. They could watch certain tags from space if they really, really, wanted to, but I wouldn't know.
Walmart instantly flirted with RFID. They wanted to streamline operations with logistics and they continuously hyped that they wanted to eliminate cashiers and workers. Automated check out? Sounded nice, and investors loved hearing things like this. Reducing operating costs does have its benefits.
Since RFID, we have evolved. Now we have IoT, the Internet of Things. IoT is smarter than RFID, but it has the same basic task, to make objects smart. So, how smart do objects have to be? Good question! I think there are some advantages to having smart objects, but it depends on what we are making smart. Making everything smart would be stupid.
To make things smart, we must add electronics that consume energy. When we add electronics, we add e-waste. When we add e-waste, we must ask, "how smart is that?". As with the bleeding edge of technology, even 3D printing, some applications are amazing and helpful, other applications just seem like gimmicks. It's how we use technology that matters most.
Wearable technology can improve many aspects of critical operations. Smart objects can help improve security, as the US Army used it for. The IoT technology has some important innovations, but it also has the expected novelty gee whizz crowd of consumer zombies.
Will we start creating stupid smart products? Slapping this technology on the regular consumer junk and clothing looks like a gimmick. Do we need this? Do I need a t-shirt to tell me something? What can one smart shoe possibly do to improve my life more than my dumb shoes? Monitor a brain for epilepsy: smart. Monitor how far your heart is from Justin Bieber: dumb. Intelligent application of smart technology will make this technology smart.
Consumerism is highly connected to the psychology of fitness signaling. Those that will line up for a “new thingy” are demonstrating physical fitness in the ability to stand and shuffle for said thingy, they also demonstrate the financial fitness to purchase said thingy, but do they possess the mental fitness to ask themselves “Do I need this?”. Well, do you punk?
I look at these products and see an ocean of microplastic and e-waste. Wasted resources to feed ignorant fitness signaling? Seems we need smart consumers more than smart products.
The internet of things will generate many positive impacts, but we also need to think in order to minimize the negative impacts of the gimmicks. It's estimated that by 2020, there will 50 billion smart objects using IoT. Will it be worth the e-waste?