IoT, industrial IoT or a MES platform - what is the difference?

An IIoT Platform, an IoT Platform, or MES: What’s the Difference and How to Pick One?

There are over 600 IoT platform vendors globally right now. You have generalized IoT platforms, industrial IoT (IIoT) platforms, and manufacturing execution systems (MES) for industrial enterprises. Some vendors offer custom IoT solutions that can be adjusted to your industrial use case. Others are already optimized for IIoT. So what’s the difference? In this article, we want to find this out and show you how you can pick the one that’s right for you.

What are IoT and IIoT?

Industrial IoT (IIoT) is a subcategory of IoT. IIoT utilizes the principles of the internet of things in industrial settings or, in short, “the elements are identical but the usage varies”. IIoT is often used in relation to  Industry 4.0, a term that encapsulates the current trend in the manufacturing industry to utilize a combination of IoT, Big Data, cloud and edge computing. 

The goal? The combined powers of IoT technology and data are applied to various manufacturing and other industrial processes to automate, predict, prevent, increase productivity and streamline processes. Manufacturing sites can make fast decisions on the basis of large volumes of IoT data coming from connected machines and equipment. IIoT helps manufacturers deal with bottlenecks using Big Data and customized IoT solutions. 

IIoT specifically deals with massive scale-out IoT in industrial settings and the connectivity across various assets such as machines and industrial PCs. Typical IIoT scenarios involve industrial-level security standards, enhanced monitoring on the shop-floor level, some level of automation, and M2M communication where machines send real-time data to an IoT application to facilitate better insight. 

But IIoT applications are not limited to the shop floor. They can intersect with other industries as shown below:

Figure 1. Industrial IoT applications

What’s the difference between the IoT platform and the IIoT platform? 

When deciding between an IoT and IIoT platform, you need to have an idea of what your case will look like. Let’s take a closer look at the two platform types:

IoT platforms

Broadly conceived, an IoT platform is a multi-layer technology that facilitates the provisioning and management of connected devices within the IoT ecosystem consisting of IoT endpoints, edge hardware, networks, and a broader value chain. IoT platforms are often referred to as middleware solutions as they act as the connective tissue between the data collected from edge devices and the end-user applications.

Gartner defines an IoT platform this way:

“An IoT platform is an on-premises software suite or a cloud service … that monitors and may manage and control various types of endpoints, often via applications business units deploy on the platform.”

The broader value chain consists of the following: 

  •  Sensors / actuators / controllers gathering data;
  • A communication network;
  • An IoT edge device/gateway that aggregates the data and transmits it across the network;
  • Data analytics for transforming, modeling, and visualizing data; 
  • The end-user applications.

Capabilities and use cases for IoT platforms

Some IoT platforms are less comprehensive than others. Depending on your use case, you may require an IoT platform that only covers a certain portion of the value chain or you may need a complete solution. An end-to-end IoT platform that covers the full IoT development cycle will typically include the following: 

  • IoT device management;
  • Data collection capabilities;
  • IoT data modeling, analytics, visualization;
  • App development capabilities / a marketplace for IoT apps;
  • IoT collaboration enablement / social features.

For a complete list of capabilities, read our article What to look for in an IoT platform? where you will find more on this topic.

Generalized IoT platforms are used in an array of industries and sectors, including logistics, automotive, finance, energy, real estate, communications, and transportation among others. Use cases for IoT platforms can be surprisingly varied and may include smart shelf analytics in retail; tracking bed occupancy in emergency wards in healthcare, or monitoring crop conditions in agriculture. 

IIoT platforms

An IIoT platform essentially covers a similar array of capabilities as the generalized IoT platform but is optimized for industrial IoT cases and the requirements associated with industrial settings. A recent definition by Gartner puts it that way: The industrial IoT platform is “a set of integrated software capabilities” that improve asset management decision-making, operational visibility and the control of plants, streamline the infrastructure, and manage equipment into asset-intensive industrial landscapes. 

The industrial IIoT platform can come in many forms: as a technology suite, an open platform, an application platform, or a DIY IIoT enabler where industrial enterprises are given the infrastructure and tools to develop their own solutions. The bottom line is that IIoT platforms are comprehensive solutions. They function as a system incorporating both the hardware components that go all the way down to the shop floor and the software applications. 

What really differentiates the IIoT platform from the generalized IoT platform is the scope of the offering, the specific industry focus, and the emphasis on industry-level security standards.

In this sense, IIoT platforms need to be especially robust. They are expected to maintain thousands of connected IoT devices, scale up and down quickly, ensure seamless data flow at all times and manage massive volumes of IoT data. They need to be flexible enough to connect with machines and equipment from many different vendors and need to support the development of logic/smart algorithms on IoT devices. IIoT platforms address three concerns in the world of industrial IoT: safety, security, and mission-criticality. 

Capabilities and use cases for IIoT platforms

The end-to-end IIoT platform would have the following:

  • Data collection capabilities;
  • Machine-to-machine communication (M2M);
  • IIoT device management;
  • IIoT data modeling, advanced analytics, data visualization;
  • App development support;
  • Industrial security standards;
  • IoT collaboration enablement / social features.

Typical IIoT use cases in manufacturing handled by IIoT platforms include:

  • factory automation for better operational efficiency;
  • location tracking for parts, inventory or tools; 
  • predictive maintenance scenarios, disaster tolerance maximization.

The IIoT platform vs. MES 

Figure 2. MES vs. IIoT: An Overview

For the past 30 years, MES, or manufacturing execution systems, have been the traditional way to streamline operations all the way down to the shop floor. They manage industrial assets, collect data, and ensure traceability in an industrial setting, among others. 

MES are software bundles providing various capabilities that are essential for the success of IIoT initiatives. MES help industrial manufacturers to track and document processes, get an overview of shop floor operations, and maintain transparency across assets. Some of the critical functionalities covered by MES are data management, change management, analytics and intelligence (reports and dashboards), scheduling, operations support, as well as core manufacturing functions such as data collection, tracking, routings, etc.  

So how are IIoT platforms different from MES? Let’s take a closer look at two criteria that drive consumer decisions — centralization and openness.

Decentralization vs. centralized systems

As a more traditional approach to IIoT, MES are centralized solutions. They tend to encounter difficulties when having to perform outside of their main functionalities. An IIoT platform, on the other hand, serves as a “transversal middleware”. This is the glue tying together sensors/devices, applications/services, and platform users/developers. IIoT platforms are more flexible as they tend to be microservice-based and decentralized. They usually consist of communication software for monitoring, troubleshooting, and managing the connected IoT devices, the network, and the flows of data. On top of that, some IIoT platforms come with advanced analytics capabilities as well as support for IoT app development.

Open platform vs. vendor lock-in

MES tend to be vendor-specific and proprietary so industrial manufacturers can only work with their vendor’s modules. And you can buy the vendor’s apps only. The manufacturers have little control over the applications they develop and deploy. 

In spite of their solid reputation and long tradition, MES come with certain limitations. This makes IIoT platforms all the more interesting. IIoT platforms come with apps as a service and perform most of the work an MES does. They can also expand the MES array of use cases. Pricing is another differentiating factor. As IIoT platforms are typically consumed as subscription-based cloud services. They come with the scalability, high availability, and affordable pricing associated with cloud computing. 

MES are still widely used in Industry 4.0 settings. Some argue for its superiority over IIoT platforms. Others believe that traditional manufacturing execution systems will soon be entirely replaced by decentralized IIoT platforms.

The truth may be somewhere in between. IIoT platforms can be used as a supplement to get the maximum value out of an existing MES solution. And as a recent publication says, a best-of-both-worlds approach may yield the best results: “integrating an IIoT platform to maximize the returns from your MES investments is the logical decision”.

Let’s discuss your use case and see what’s best for you. Get in touch to talk to an expert. 

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