More connectivity should usher in a smarter era

Sooraj Shah
Monday, October 24, 2016

An estimated 26 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020, according to technology analyst Gartner. These include ‘smart’ fridges, and thermostats, as well as devices things like smartphones, tablets and TVs.

And while consumers will reap the rewards of being able to warm their homes or check they have enough milk remotely, enterprises can also benefit from the huge amount of data at their disposal, and from the various devices they can use to streamline their operations. 

Print may have actually had a head start in IoT compared with other sectors.

“The printing industry has been benefitting from taking inanimate objects and hooking them up to a network for years,” says Keith McMurtrie, managing director of MIS developer Tharstern. 

“The whole JDF journey started back in the 90s for this very reason and the key vendors in the industry have been improving it ever since,” he adds. 

Indeed integrated workflows, for example Kodak’s Prinergy, have been around in the industry for a while. A more recent example  is HP’s PrintOS, which enables manufacturers to communicate with publishers, brand owners, clients and print service providers, so that content can be submitted online, and aggregated, estimated, produced and managed. The system can be accessed, managed and monitored using a smartphone. 

Pat McGrew, director of production workflow service at Infotrends, explains that the groundwork for internet-connected devices in printing firms was laid by CIP4 with JDF and JMF. 

“The adoption of that framework among hardware vendors has laid a firm infrastructure for creating internet-connected networks inside a print shop,” she says.

But as with all technology, advancements are coming thick and fast, and the printing industry now has some issues to contend with. For example, there are still many ‘dumb’ machines in use, and they are difficult to integrate into an IoT ecosystem.

Smart move

For those that do have machines with intelligence built in, that intelligence still needs to be managed. 

“To truly benefit from IoT, the industry needs to improve how we organise, process and format the ‘data’ we get and turn it into valuable ‘information’, because data and information are two very different things,” McMurtrie explains.

Steve Wilson, Inca Digital’s director of research and development says one of the biggest issues in machines being able to communicate with each other, are the “politics” and commercial deals between the various vendors involved. 

He says that Inca is talking to various other providers about getting its products communicating automatically.

The stumbling block when it comes to IoT – not just in the printing industry but in any sector – is a lack of standards.

Companies that are trying to rectify this by collaborating with each other, have only compounded the issue. Technology giants such as Cisco, Google, Intel and IBM, for example, have all made their own standards bodies, teaming up with other companies in the technology space – but these different variants mean that there’s a long way to go before IoT standards are in place.

Inca’s Wilson laments the lack of standards, and emphasises that “almost no one in the printing industry” conforms to the JDF standards.

“Just as with English, American English, Indian English – all of them are different. They can still communicate but you have to tune in to different accents, and it’s the same with JDF because different companies implement different parts of the core standard and they add bits on,” he explains.

“So if you want to talk to a different workflow, you’re doing to have to do it differently. A common platform isn’t provided, but that should be core functionality. It is quite difficult to standardise without making it restrictive, but there is a need for standards,” he states.

It must be added that IoT is for those print firms that are pushing technology boundaries and that have the money to trial new things. It is worth noting that many organisations that try out IoT projects find it hard to scale these up, and often find that the benefits aren’t worth the associated effort and costs. For smaller printing businesses, it may be a case of waiting to see how the bigger players exploit IoT, and then replicate successful projects.

So what other IoT devices are we likely to see in the printing industry?

Tharstern’s McMurtrie believes technologies such as iBeacon or Eddystone could replace a chunk of the paperwork that jobs accrue such as job bags and artwork assets.

“A beacon attached to a job would allow us to track it around the shop floor without operators having to scan barcodes based on proximity to readers,” he says.

The data could then be made available to customers so they could track their order throughout the production process in real-time. Beacons could also be used for warehousing and inventory.

Heidelberg meanwhile is working with software developer USU to offer products and services that will help printers operate as competitively as possible. Board member for sales and services Harald Weimer says: “What we need to be doing is looking ahead to prevent machine-related interruptions of production and optimally planning maintenance.”

And the company understands that to do this it needs to gather data from smart machines. Most new Heidelberg machines today are connected to the cloud on installation. There are now 10,000 machines and 15,000 Prinect software modules supplying regular process data, according to the company. “In doing so we transform big data into valuable smart data that we can then use to develop smart services and increase our customers’ productivity,” adds Weimer.

Endless possibilities

Meanwhile McGrew believes that the possibilities for IoT at printing firms are endless. She thinks that sensors will grow in sophistication to provide more detailed feedback around print quality, while new sensors could verify that the right job has been printed on the right paper and communicate with internet-connected robots, which can then take it to a finishing line. Sensors could also be used in the finishing line to keep dashboards updated so that CSRs know exactly when a job is complete and ready for delivery, she said.

David Murphy, worldwide director of marketing and business development at HP PageWide Web Press Division goes so far as to say that in the future, every printed document will form a part of IoT.

“That includes everything from a printed book to a magazine, to newspapers and manuals to marketing collateral,” he says. This is why the company has invested in digital watermark technology that enables users to scan a printed document using an app on a tablet, and receive extra content.

But while it is clear that IoT can be used to benefit the printing industry, there are a number of security issues that companies need to be aware of.

Connecting more devices to a company network leads to an increased attack surface, which cyber criminals are likely to exploit in order to get hold of any useful data. Gartner predicts that over 25% of identified attacks in enterprises will involve IoT, but only 44% of firms have a known IoT security policy, according to research by security firm ForeScout. 

As with most cyber-attacks, data theft is one of the biggest concerns – particularly, personal or sensitive data of clients or customers, or in the case of printers, this could even be intellectual property. The problem with many IoT devices is that they have limited or no security on the device itself, making it easy for hackers to gain access to all kinds of data.

There have also been cases where IoT devices have been used to launch cyber attacks; cyber-criminals took over internet protocol cameras, lightbulbs and thermostats where username and password combinations were easily obtainable online, and created what is known as an IoT botnet. They then directed 990Gb/s of traffic from the botnet to a security researcher’s website to take it down. An enterprise’s own IoT devices could be used in a similar way to take down its network. 

In another scenario, if IoT devices or sensors were used for critical processes, and a hacker gained access to them in order to take it offline, this could also have a detrimental effect on a company’s systems. 

In other words, IoT can create new headaches for organisations, but if the organisation is exploiting IoT, it is likely to be ahead of the curve from a cyber security perspective too, and therefore will have to extend its security practices to a whole range of new devices and sensors. 

The move towards the ever-more-networked print factory seems unstoppable, and IoT technology likely to play an increasingly important part in the future. Printers will need to be prepared to capitalise on IoT opportunities as well as being alert to the potential challenges. 

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