Think You’re Too Small for IIoT? Think Again.

Mark Bottomley, UK Country Director at Rockwell Automation tackles misconceptions around IIoT adoption for micro, small and medium sized enterprises in the UK.

When it comes to IIoT adoption in the UK, there are many misconceptions.

I’ve heard it said that some Micro, Small and Medium size Enterprises (MSMEs) think that IIoT is just for ‘big companies’. Others that it’s something that would be ‘nice to have’ for smaller companies, but that it is too expensive, or that they don’t need it. Yet more, that MSMEs say things like “we’ve run our business in the same way for two generations, we don’t need to change”.

Many people think that MSMEs are still at the very early stages of the IIoT journey – that adoption may filter down from larger companies in the future as practices change. Others think that, for example, as an OEM, IIoT is not really applicable to them, but rather something for their customers to ‘worry about’. Or that as someone at the start of the supply chain, it will be the businesses they supply who stand to gain from IIoT, and there’s no need to take a strategic approach to their own practices.

I don’t honestly believe there are many MSMEs who think any of those things. The vast majority of those that I speak to about IIoT are very aware of how IIoT is starting to change the landscape for all industrial companies in the UK.

I do believe that industry and government can do a better job of communicating IIoT to smaller companies though. Are we even speaking the right language? Are the big advisory consultancies looking at MSME IIoT adoption?

Tackling Misconceptions

The truth is that MSMEs usually work differently to larger companies, with more job roles being taken by fewer people. A large company may be best advised to assemble an IIoT adoption team that represents operational technology (OT) within the company, the IT department, HR, and someone at board level to create a strategy. In many MSMEs, all those job roles are often covered by one or two people. Far from being a barrier to adoption, this can offer a level of agility to shorten the decision-making process and result in an advantage.

The challenge for SMEs though, is that those people are often already stretched, that budgets for more fundamental and/or strategic changes are very limited, and that the skills needed to implement new approaches are hard to find.

A strategic approach to IIoT is important to everyone in industry, and vital for the UK economy. Some MSMEs are as advanced as any big company – there are many examples in the UK’s automotive supply chain, for example. So the idea that it isn’t happening for SMEs is simply not true.

It’s easy to see why MSME adoption of IIoT is at least as important to the future of UK industry as larger companies embracing the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, MSMES in the UK make up the vast majority of the economy – small businesses accounted for 99.3% of all private sector businesses at the start of 2017 and 99.9% were micro, small or medium-sized (SMEs). They account for more than 60% of the workforce and more than half of all private sector turnover.

It’s time to redress the misconceptions and tackle the challenges to IIoT. I don’t believe that MSMEs simply turn away from IIoT and think ‘this is not for me’. Or ‘this is not important right now’.

I believe the barriers are more about investment costs and skills shortages. We don’t need to explain that, increasingly, larger businesses further down the supply chain will need the production data of every supplier’s output and that if they don’t adapt, they will be edged out of the market no matter how long they have been serving it. We don’t need to explain to a bakery that buying a new production line will increase their output, but that unless it is IIoT ready, the supermarkets they intend to supply might not accept their bread. We don’t need to explain to OEMs that if their machines are not IIoT compatible, they will lose the business of the end users on their own journey to IIoT connectivity.

What we need to do is help hurdle the barriers. Help MSMEs to automate – to reduce the IT workload of the OT engineer so that he or she can concentrate on improving production; reduce the issue of finding staff by providing training, by automating the aspects that can be automated and by providing services for elements that can’t be resourced inside the business. We must show how a strategic approach to investment that is IIoT-ready doesn’t mean investing more – it means investing smarter.

It also means highlighting those all-important first steps for MSMEs – showing how to start small with a pilot project, and how for those who can’t easily build a project team, they can reach out to experienced consultants, vendors, and systems integrators to supplement their experience.

Those same entities, the vendors like us, systems integrators, industry associations, Government, we must help MSMEs to install future-proof technologies and processes that will help them not just grow but improve.

I’m keen to hear from more MSMEs about their own journeys – whatever point they have reached with regards to IIoT adoption. What are the issues you face? What did you learn that will help other MSMEs in their own journey? What would you like to see from associations and government to clear the path?

They say a rising tide lifts all boats – IIoT is a rapidly rising tide and the UK’s industrial economy can only fully benefit if all boats, large, small, and micro – are ‘seaworthy’.

Rockwell Automation will be exhibiting at the SMAS 2018 National Manufacturing Conference on 30 May so come and speak to us!