The name “information superhighway” was familiar at the beginning of the internet age. At the time that the internet was introduced, the most common communication used a point-to-point system. A user would dial the telephone number of the recipient, and all communications took place between one and the other. The electrical connection between the two was a series of wires travelling via telephone exchanges, connected for the purpose of that call, and broken once it ended.
The idea of the internet as a highway shows that people were still thinking of the established telephone network, but it is inaccurate. It also seems somewhat funny to describe the early internet as a highway. If we think about the speed of information, the early internet was an almost imperceptible trail through overgrown jungle compared to today’s 20-lane autobahn with no speed limits. Even this does not fully describe the volume of information that the internet delivers to our devices.
Understanding the New Technology
The concept of the cloud is far more descriptive of the internet. The cloud represents the internet as a mass of data which we enter in order to consume or share information. The idea of a highway does not reflect the decentralized structure of the internet, nor does it adequately describe the volume of information that the internet delivers when compared to old-fashioned point-to-point communications.
This volume of information is transforming not only the way that we communicate with each other, but how machines are interacting with each other. With the ability to share so much data over a dispersed network, the industrial landscape is changing. This has been heralded as a new industrial revolution and given its own name – Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0 has seen the rise of what is being called the smart factory. No longer does a factory contain row upon row of machines, each serving its own function in isolation. The smart factory sees all of these machines connected together, sharing information with each other and with the computer network that controls them.
The New Industrial Revolution
The result is that any industrial process can be controlled centrally. However, the new environment is not just about control, as information is shared up as well as down. Not only are instructions sent from the control network to the machines, but data is collected from the machines and shared with the operators. This means that the functioning of the process can be monitored in real-time. What makes this truly revolutionary is that the cloud-structure of the internet allows the individual elements of the process – machines, operators and management – can be physically distant from each other.
This leads to other problems. A remotely-located element in the network – whether a machine or a data-centre – still needs to be monitored to ensure its correct function. This is where the concept of the Digital Twin becomes important.
The Digital Twin
A Digital Twin is a simulation, a digital replica of a real-world system that exists electronically in a virtual space. It uses both a model of how the system should run and real-world data collected from sensors within the original.
A good example is the jet engine mounted to the wing of an airliner. By collecting data about the performance of the engine – temperatures, pressures, efficiency – and sharing this with a digital twin of the engine, the engine manufacturer can monitor its condition during flight. Problems that might only come to light during a maintenance check can be identified while the engine is still in use. This means that repairs can take place earlier and more efficiently, minimising the downtime without compromising safety. By simulating the engine in use, the digital twin provides early warning of future maintenance needs.
This is just one example, and the use of the Digital Twin is becoming common in markets as diverse as automotive and medical equipment. In recent weeks, a number of leaders in the area of computing and networking have joined to bring the digital twin into the mainstream and help aid its adoption.
The Digital Twin and Industry 4.0 both depend on the sharing of data in huge volumes, which is only possible due to the cloud-like structure of the internet. Whilst the idea of an information superhighway is an inaccurate description of how the internet works, there is still a physical infrastructure that must this data from one place to another, especially in data centers.
The New Superhighway
The latest industrial revolution – Industry 4.0 – is already here. Unlike previous industrial revolutions, Industry 4.0 does not depend on physical raw materials like cotton, coal or iron. The raw material of the future is data.
In the 19th century, canals and railways were the means of moving raw materials around. In the 21st century, we will rely on high-speed technology, connectors and cables like NovaRay® or silicon-to-silicon solutions to move data across the world. So, while the internet is cloud-shaped, it turns out we still need information superhighways after all.