The Internet of Things (IoT) in 2021


I’m not sure I have the words to summarize the year that has just concluded. From a pandemic and economic fallout to civil unrest and supply chain catastrophes, 2020 was by far the most challenging year I have seen in my lifetime. Through all of the challenges, though, there was a theme that I did appreciate: the growth of IoT/IIoT.

In many respects, the remote work environment and health / safety concerns that are now top of mind for many organizations, greatly accelerated the adoption of IoT in production environments. To give you an idea of just how much growth happened in 2020, the number of IoT devices hit nearly 12 billion (up 2 billion from 2019), marking the first year that we had more IoT connected devices than non-IoT devices. I believe this will continue to maintain and gain momentum as we enter 2021.

Distributed Architectures will Become Critical for Success

It is becoming common for organizations of have an “IoT Core” platform running in the Cloud (either with a hyperscaler or at a private data center) that communicates with one or many Edge installations. These Edge installs are used to collect, analyze and draw conclusions from data, to help make informed decisions right where the data was collected, rather than depending on the Cloud. This Edge / Cloud collaboration is often called a “Distributed Architecture”.

The need to have a distributed, resilient architecture is becoming more critical as organizations continue to shift their focus from cloud to edge, bringing more compute power on-premise. IoT projects are rapidly becoming significant value-add initiatives and the ability to scale throughout the entire enterprise, as well as quickly adopt new use cases, is proving to require such an architecture to be successful.

There are a few significant reasons why this is so appealing:

  • It alleviates the need of having a constant connection to the Cloud in order to get value out of data
  • It helps ensure you do not experience a crippling outage by decentralizing some of the most important data analysis
  • It provides the flexibility needed to use IoT in some of the most remote locations in the world

As IoT and Industrial IoT projects become real-world production deployments, organizations who lead with what is a popular “Cloud-first” mentality will be faced with a number of challenges. Some that are top of mind:

  • Cost of storing and computing all data in the Cloud
  • Latency and unexpected outages in 3rd party infrastructures that cannot be mitigated
  • Limited use cases due to limited connectivity (if you cannot communicate to the Cloud, you cannot analyze or process data)

IoT will Keep People Safe

When we think of IoT and AI in terms of keeping people safe, most people imagine a Minority Report world, where computers are used to predict crime or facial recognition and biometrics are leveraged to hunt down criminals. Don’t get me wrong, that’s cool stuff, but it’s not what I think of when I say “safe”.

Worker health and safety was top of mind for most companies in 2020 and I believe that will continue to be a trend in 2021. From computer vision that monitors ergonomics, to worker social distancing and contract tracing, IoT is being used to keep people healthy an safe in a wide range of industries. I see a few things that will be a focus here in the coming months and years:

  • Wearables paired with IoT platforms (both Cloud and On-Premise) that will provide insights on social distancing compliance, real-time alerts for employees and contact tracing
  • Computer vision that will provide real-time alarming for worker proximity
  • Real-time employee vital monitoring to ensure folks are healthy while at work

Aside from worker health and safety, IoT will continue to keep people safe in hospitals and at home through a new world of connected medical devices. From hospital call stations and smart hospital beds to consumer medical devices like blood oxygen meters, smart scales and watches, this technology will be used behind the scenes in some of the most important use cases in the business.

By now you’ve heard stories of how an Apple Watch saved someone’s life, but you may not have known that companies that manufacture programmers for pacemakers or critical patient monitoring equipment use this technology to save lives, every day.

Industrial IoT will Continue to Lead the Pack

It wasn’t long ago that I was at a round table event with folks from 3M, John Deere, Pfizer and a number of other very large manufactures who were brought together to discuss IIoT. One thing I picked up from our discussion was that just about everyone used the phrase “one million dollars” to describe what it took to get into the IIoT game. Things like, “if I had a million dollars to spend” or “if it didn’t cost a million bucks…”

Today, industrial IoT is not a rich person’s game; it doesn’t cost a million dollars to get started and see value. In fact, it’s become incredibly attainable over the last few years. As hardware prices continue to decrease and more on-premise and Edge technologies enter the market, the barrier to entry for industrial use cases is getting lower and lower every day. For example, it used to cost thousands of dollars to get hardware to connect a single machine on an assembly line. Today, you can get industrial-grade hardware for as little as a few hundred dollars that will connect and collect data from your machinery. This is important to note as we see adoption widening.

The supply chain challenges of 2020 have been like gasoline tossed onto of the fire of Industrie 4.0. Industrial companies who were not leveraging IoT for remote asset monitoring, field services, quality assurance and a number of other use cases undoubtedly realized just how important it is in this new remote world. Having connected, smart assets in a factory, out on an oil field or a connected fleet of vehicles is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity. Here’s where I see IIoT focusing in 2021:

  • Connected assets will be leveraged to increase efficiencies and reduce unplanned downtime events
  • Connected supply chain initiatives will leverage fleet data better optimize production scheduling
  • Predictive and prescriptive analytics will become more heavily leveraged to increase quality and reduce services costs

Smart Cities will Become Data Hubs

For a long time, “Smart City” was synonymous with “smart parking” or other very specific use cases. I see a transition from this to a more holistic data hub where smart cities are leveraged in a multitude of ways, centered around data collection. From vehicle telematics and smart street lights to guided tours for tourists via beacons and soil monitoring for more effective water management, there are many things happening in these connected cities today.

The data captured from all of these activities, people and vehicles passing through as well as utility usage will prove to be invaluable for understanding trends of both a city’s inhabitants as well as it’s visitors. This will help cities:

  • Reduce costs for municipalities and cities (water and energy usage, etc.)
  • Understand where people are and spend the most time (personalized news, etc.)
  • Assist with public safety initiatives (real-time notifications of gunshots, crimes, etc.)

Today, some of the world’s largest cities use IoT technology to enable connected public transportation, traffic monitoring and water level monitoring. As more data is collected, new use cases will continue to be tested and implemented. These use cases aim to make cities more efficient but also increase the quality of life for those whom visit and live there.

What do You Think?

2021 will be a unique year for all of us as we enter another phase of this “new normal”. Remote work is prevalent, kids are still home, health and safety remain top of mind for most of us. One thing is for sure, IoT will continue to be a very important part of our lives and our businesses.