Machine learning for IIoT: 4 tips to get you started

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will bring large volumes of fast-moving data.  This brings both challenges and opportunities.  At the risk of stating the  obvious, one challenge is making sense of large complex data sets.  Machine learning approaches can help here, so I’ve got four tips for getting you started with machine learning:

1.  Forget some of what you know about analytics

If you plan to deal with IIoT data, you may need to refresh your thinking about analytics.  Historically, analytics have been a relatively simple and sedate affair.  For example, analysis was often performed on historical data at some point in time after it was generated.  In addition – for better or worse – analytics often mirrored the siloed nature of data.  That is, the integration of data was minimal.  Industrial IoT will bring more data, faster, from a greater variety of sources.  Managing this data complexity to be able to respond to events in a timely way will required a much more automated and frictionless approach to the analytics value chain.  Machine learning is one way to achieve that.  It can be especially powerful with complex data, where patterns are not obvious and it’s difficult – nay, impossible – for humans to formulate and code rules.  Unfortunately, the lack of transparent logic in machine learning can be an obstacle for some people that must be overcome.  Many engineers just aren’t comfortable with black-box solutions.  Tough, get over it.

2.  Explore machine learning as a technology

The cloud changes everything.  In this particular case, it demolishes the barriers to entry for machine learning.  A new generation of machine learning tools (from BigML, Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM for example) are cloud-based products.  Most offer a free trial, some for an indefinite time period.  They also offer a much more guided, tutorial-style development experience than the previous generations of software.  So what’s the cost to learn more experiment with it…?  It’s your time.  At this point, extensive investigation of machine learning tools prior to selection isn’t strictly necessary.

Here’s how the evaluation process can work:

  • Pick a cloud-based machine learning tool; any one, it doesn’t really matter.
  • Spend a day or two playing with it.
  • If you like it, play some more.
  • If you don’t like it, pick another tool and start over using the experience you’ve already gained.

3.  Don’t be fooled – successful machine learning isn’t all data science

True enough, at a technical level, machine learning can appear enigmatic.  Seemingly without rules or logic, it can be daunting to try and understand the details.  But, that’s what IT professionals, analysts, and data scientists are for.  Like all successful IT projects, successful machine learning projects do not start and end with IT.  Business and domain expertise are crucial to success.  Consider the application of machine learning to maintenance.  Domain expertise is necessary to identify potential source data to feed the algorithms.  Further, domain expertise is required to interpret and provide context to the output of machine learning.  Like all successful IT projects, machine learning applications require a collaborative cross-functional team.

4.  Consider prescriptive maintenance applications

Many enterprises will be breaking new ground with IIoT applications.  It’s critical that the first wave of IIoT applications deliver a tangible and measurable return on investment.  Re-inventing the approach to asset maintenance provides a clear path to measurable benefits.  Research by ARC’s Ralph Rio shows that the most common approach to maintenance is still simple preventative maintenance.  And yet, as the same ARC research also shows, that is not the optimal approach for the majority of assets.  Maintenance applications that incorporate machine learning are a promising approach for capitalizing on Industrial IoT data.  The potential return on investment (ROI) in predictive maintenance is real, tangible, and relatively immediate – all good things you need in a beachhead project.

So those are my four tips – consider it my Christmas gift to you.  And no, you can’t take them back to the store for a refund if you don’t like them…

(Shameless plug alert:  This and more in my exceedingly good value research report on machine learning for Industrial IoT).

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