The Internet of Things (IoT) describes the networking of physical objects (fitness bracelets, smart home, connected cars, industry 4.0) and the virtual world (software/Internet). Physical objects, in particular, are equipped with appropriate technologies to enable both data transfer and interaction between machines and machines and humans and machines (see also the sections on human-machine system (HMS) and human-computer interaction (HCI) highlighted in the article).

The basic technologies of IoT include above all sensors which, in combination with fast processors and large memory capacities, enable a transmission speed of information almost in real-time. The Internet of Things aims to automatically collect relevant information from the real (physical) world, combine it and make it available to all participants via a digital network. Machines connected in this way, form independent systems that interact with each other or, if necessary, with humans.

According to the definition of the Munich Circle, almost any analog object can undergo a digital transformation by being equipped with sensors, microprocessors or other technological components.

Michaela Tiedemann /

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a novel paradigm that is rapidly gaining ground in the scenario of modern wireless telecommunications. The basic idea of this concept is the pervasive presence around us of a variety of things or objects – such as Radio-Frequency IDentification (RFID) tags, sensors, actuators, mobile phones, etc. – which, through unique addressing schemes, are able to interact with each other and cooperate with their neighbors to reach common goals.

D. Giusto, A. Iera, G. Morabito, L. Atzori (Eds.), The Internet of Things

Within an IoT infrastructure, clearly identifiable physical objects are given a virtual presence in a networked structure. For this purpose, they are first localized by means of an IP address; and via codes (RFID, two-dimensional codes) they become automatically identifiable and can be actively ‘stimulated’ to interact with other machines. If, for example, an object on a conveyor belt passes a light barrier and the current object location is communicated to the following processing station – then the corresponding sensors and actuators can also be used to detect conditions automatically and to prepare and initiate necessary processing processes in advance. Information about the product can be queried via a barcode scan, and any restrictions can be communicated to the plant or the employee. By now a standard: In production or generally in the industrial sector, so-called machine status information is very useful, since on the one hand the effectiveness of the device/facility can be continuously improved, on the other hand, the employee responsible for an industrial facility is able to decide in time about necessary maintenance or the replacement of a component. Some systems can now trigger these processes themselves. By connecting to the Internet, it is even possible for the machine to order its own spare parts.

Internet of things – a quick example

  • The weighing station of a conveyor line identifies a package of screws as such (automatic, unique identification).
  • It detects by the reduced weight that there are too few screws in the package (status detection).
  • After the weighing station, the pack of screws is discharged for refilling (action execution).
When people work with machines, there are two ways of looking at the actual field of expertise. On the one hand, there is the human-machine system (HMS); on the other hand, there are the human-computer interactions (HCI).

Human-Machine System

The human-machine system is based on interactions between a person and a machine; in most cases, the person as the so-called operator represents the executing or controlling force. The machine itself is usually required as a means to an end and is nowadays equipped with sensors, memory and processor technology, mechanics and display aids. Common machines are, for example, the car, a ship, the bicycle and the plane. However, more and more robots are also being used in research and the operating theatre. For example, a so-called biopsy must be performed if cancer is suspected. Such tissue removal requires such a high degree of precision that the human being is overtaxed by the time and accuracy requirements of the operation – “the robot maneuvers the needle quickly and precisely to the optimal position, an otherwise difficult, time-consuming task for the surgeon,” reported Spiegel Online (German) as early as 2011. The only prerequisite for human-machine communication: A human-machine relationship always requires a detailed description; for example, detailed task descriptions, targets and sub-steps of action.

Human-Computer Interactions

There is an invisible interface between man and machine, which links both worlds via design and related computer technologies. Through increasingly digital information processing, classical media (image, text, video) thus grow together with the technical working worlds of computer science and digital communication technology. The difference between HMS and HCI is that HCI enables people to communicate directly with the machine or the computer using tools. Speech, keyboard, mouse and data glasses support so-called person-based machine communication. The data glasses, in particular, show how human-computer interaction is to be understood. These technologies expand the senses (Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality); at the same time, they enrich existing information with new data sets – the user automatically has a much greater scope of action. And examples such as the support of assembly work and operations via data glasses point to existing potential. The terminology of human-machine interactions shows how rich in application this field is*: Autonomous systems, sensors & actuators, semantic technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, usability, immersion, augmented reality, controllability of technology, liability issues, data protection, data security and embedded systems (*Competence Center Public IT (German)).

Purpose of the IoT

Dedicated networks, i.e. systems, programs as well as components that perform fixed tasks, automation technology may possess a similar triad of these functions, but the demarcation from IoT is that the latter aims at the widest possible availability; it should be possible to use the resulting, shared and exchanged information over the widest possible range, for example across a complete supply chain and not just within the real and virtual boundaries of a company. Parcel tracking, for example, is not only essential and correspondingly available for internal company processes, but also for the customer who wants to find out about the status of his or her shipment. In environmental surveying (temperature-controlled logistics), IoT is also playing an increasingly important role; production processes are also among the increased areas of application of IoT, both in the form of autonomous production and in the sense of a broader, deeper and faster, i.e. holistically optimized use of data. The prerequisite for this limitless activity: all components involved are connected to each other and the Internet.

In the production process, data on capacity utilization, the quality produced and the maintenance status are indispensable for manufacturing companies. Accordingly, they see the highest potential in the monitoring of machine conditions and the planning of maintenance cycles via networked sensor technology.

Chair of Business Informatics / Competitive Factor Analytics in the Internet of Things (German)

The potential IoT for the industry, summarized

The Internet of Things automates parts of industrial processes or autonomously controls entire process units, for example of a production plant – right up to the automated value-added chain, which enables a fluid and transparent exchange of information between machines, facilities, goods and people.

IoT for the end-user, summarized

The end consumer generally reduces the individual technologies of IoT only to the networking of his or her end devices located in the household (smart home), for example, refrigerator, roller shutter, door, light, heating (energy management) and home entertainment devices – usually controlled via individual apps, the smartphone and a Smartwatch. Users now receive additional support from language assistants such as Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple) and Google Assistant.

Internet of things in intralogistics

By networking software systems (ERP, Warehouse Management System, Material flow computer, databases) and equipment (conveyor technology such as high-bay warehouse, bag sorter, automated small-parts warehouse), processes in the intralogistics can be made considerably more efficient. In intralogistics processes, large amounts of data are continuously generated, for example, in the areas of Goods Receipt, storage and retrieval, Picking, Goods Issue or within the Returns processing. In the course of digitalization, the optimization of the material flow has become increasingly important. With the right technologies and software programs, the Internet of Things can not only manage the data mentioned above and goods flows but also make them visible, easier to understand and faster – either in-process handling or in-process analysis. The latter is of enormous importance for process and machine optimization. In addition, the boundary between production and intralogistics is increasingly blurred as production facilities communicate with the networked warehouse to order supplies in due time, for example. The latter can also be triggered directly by the order picker while picking – usually, all that is needed is a scan of the compartment to be filled and a keystroke on a smartphone, handheld or PDT.

Thus, self-organizing logistics systems, i.e. without human intervention, have long since become a reality. In intralogistics, efficient and above all trouble-free processes are created by networking products, components, machines, human users and means of transport. The resulting digital unit is also known as a Smart Factory. The human being acts merely as a process observer and only intervenes in an emergency. Today, however, there are still countless processes within a warehouse in which sensors, let alone machine power cannot completely replace humans. For example, an order picker is still an essential part of the actual picking process. As even today, picking robots still have problems, especially when gripping and moving goods, with different packaging sizes, packaging properties and different packaging materials…

Application examples of IoT in intralogistics

The augmented reality within picking / in warehouse operations

The user is not only shown the optimal route description on the display of the data glasses; if required, additional information is shown in the field of vision/display. This can be images to support identification, but also general information – quantity, size or next pick. By means of voice input or smartphone/MDE/handheld, the superordinate system (WMS/ERP) receives confirmation that the goods have been picked, for example. The actual scanning of the goods or the compartment takes place either via the scanner embedded in the data glasses or via an external scanner (ring scanner, scanner in the Smart Device). See also the picking method Pick by Vision.

Driverless transport control systems (AGV) and transport robots

Driverless transport systems lead on the one hand to a reduction of transport damages and on the other hand, save on personnel costs. The continuous exchange of data and route-optimized control using a transport control system (see also material flow computer) reduces travel and waiting times; this ensures smooth production as well as the fastest possible and constant material flow. Such transport robots are now available for every intralogistics task: moving small boxes and containers, transporting pallets (see conveyor aids in intralogistics) or goods weighing several tons.

The Internet of Things, summarized

The Internet of Things allows machines to interact and cooperate with other devices, usually in an automated way. Individual objects or entire production plants are equipped with sensors and actuators that can automatically and uniquely identify an object, record its status, and subsequently execute the appropriate actions. Also, each IoT object has a unique IP address to be addressable in the network/Internet. Through IoT applications, the linked machines form independent systems which, for example in intralogistics, ensure efficient and smooth work processes by processing large amounts of data to make optimal decisions in milliseconds; these decisions are either implemented automatically or presented to the relevant human employees as recommendations for action at the control station.

If you are interested in the topic of the Internet of Things, then we recommend the articles Human-Machine Interfaces in the Industry and Cyber-Physical Systems and Logistics.

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