The next era of networking

Coffee machines and fridges are going online


The Internet of Things (IoT) heralds the road to a new era. The networking of physical objects has already begun and is making many things easier in everyday life. At FHWS too, work is under way on the application of the Internet of Things in collaboration with companies. Prof. Dr. Bastian Engelmann from the Faculty of Business and Engineering explains what opportunities and risks arise with the use of the IoT.

The year is 2015: Marty McFly soars over Hill Valley town hall square on his hoverboard, Doc Brown predicts the weather with his watch and flies through time in his DeLorean. We may still not have flying cars and skateboards, but the cult film “Back to the Future II” from 1989 contains some futuristic inventions which define our everyday life today. Whether the screenwriters really thought at the time that we would be able to show the weather with the help of wearables is impossible to know. But the fact is: many future technologies from that time are more relevant than ever today.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has long been no longer a trend, but almost commonplace in many areas. Here, the IoT means the networking of everyday objects or of machines in an industrial environment with the internet. In 2015, the total number of networked devices was nine billion. According to the market research company Gartner, 25 to 50 billion devices should be networked with one another by 2025. In the future, every car, every washing machine, every wristwatch will be networked. We are currently still in the phase of wild experimentation, says Prof. Dr. Bastian Engelmann of the Faculty of Business and Engineering at FHWS. “The Internet of Things will then catch on in the long term where real added value can be generated,” Engelmann stresses. Added value occurs where these new services can improve living comfort. The fridge of tomorrow remembers what we eat. It knows when we get up, need milk and eggs, and buys them online for us. At the same time, sensors will monitor our blood pressure and blood sugar level and send the information directly to the general practitioner and the pharmacist.

Photo of  Prof. Dr. Engelmann
Prof. Dr. Bastian Engelmann (© Simone Friese)
Quote Prof. Dr. Bastian Engelmann: “The Internet of Things will then catch on in the long term where real added value can be generated.”
Prof. Dr. Bastian Engelmann in front of students
Prof. Dr. Bastian Engelmann works in the Faculty of Business and Engineering. He is also the deputy dean of studies there, among other things. (© Simone Friese)

How necessary is the Internet of Things?

But aren't many of these things just gimmicks? “Already today, we are seeing coffee machines or fans, for example, in the household sector with app support. The purpose may not yet be apparent,” says Engelmann. “But perhaps we will later identify a purpose which only becomes possible through the availability of technology.” Added value can be generated not only in a private setting, but also in the various fields of business. Thus, the Internet of Things makes entirely new applications possible in production, in logistics, in medicine, in agriculture or in retail. Remote operations, intelligent traffic management and fully automated production lines are just a few ideas here which are already in development.

Vast amounts of data must be processed

A question that is frequently discussed is what happens with the data which is generated and how to protect it. Because a large volume of data also carries risks. In the future, it will no longer be sufficient to discuss how medical practices securely store health data or how social networks manage their customer's interests. Because even the fridge then sees and hears everything. As does the toaster or the car. As a result, a significant amount of personal data accrues, particularly in the networked home, the so-called smart home. Such data includes information regarding the age or place of residence of the user, usage behaviour and the respective preferences on a smart TV.

A majority of this data is stored in a Cloud. Cloud services are often located on third-party servers and therefore potentially in other countries with different, potentially less strict data protection provisions. The Advisory Council for Consumer Affairs considers personal data to be a big problem. According to a study from 2016 on the topic of consumer data protection, the selection of data processing systems and the management of the specific data processing process must be implemented such that no personal data or as little personal data as possible is processed. Such data therefore should not occur at all. And when it does, the amount should be kept as low as possible. The aim is not to reduce the volume of data per se, but rather to minimise the personal nature of the data.

Engelmann is also critical on this topic: “I personally have no problem with storing my jogging data in the Cloud – but I would never store PINs or passwords in the Cloud.” However, the topic of data protection complicates the possible way forward. “When it comes to points of improvement, it often feels like data protection is holding back the necessary progress,” Engelmann says.

Quote by Prof. Dr. Bastian Engelmann: “I personally have no problem with storing my jogging data in the Cloud – but I would never store PINs or passwords in the Cloud.”

Internet of Things at FHWS

This is also reflected in the mindset of consumers. Many applications have not really gained ground to date. The reason? Too expensive, too pointless and: too insecure. Developments in the business-to-business sector are more economically promising, on the other hand. There are self-driving container transporters at the container terminal of the Port of Hamburg, for example, which communicate with one another and automate a lot of processes. FHWS also deals with the Internet of Things. Intelligent sensors are used in the CIPS (Center Intelligent Production Systems) to record data from the production environment and thus achieve added value through forecast models.

Furthermore, there is the “Optimisation of processes and tooling machines through provision, analysis and target/actual comparison of production data” (OBerA) project which was launched in collaboration with the Free State of Bavaria. Here, medium-sized metal processing companies from Franconia should receive support with the digitalisation of their system landscape. “Together with my fellow professors Schleif and Dobhan, we are helping to achieve more transparency regarding business processes in collaboration with Siemens AG,” says Engelmann. Kritzner Metalltechnik GmbH and the Pabst group of companies from Schweinfurt are involved. In both companies, production systems should be networked and added value information should be generated.

The Internet of Things is inexorable. The IoT has already found its way into the professional environment. Work processes can be automated and optimised. In the private sector, on the other hand, there is still great scepticism regarding the actual added value and in particular the security of networked devices. The focus here should be more on the topics of transparency and information. What happens with my data? What data is processed? Consumers ask these questions relatively rarely in everyday life. They are confronted with their own data and its release here on a daily basis. Awareness of this is therefore not yet present. But one thing is certain: by now, our smartwatch can show us the current weather forecast. In the end, the makers of “Back to the Future II” had a pretty good nose for some things. And perhaps we will also be flying through the air in a car in the near future.

Photo of Felix Dreifürst

An article by 
Felix Dreifürst