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The Impacts of New Sensor and Data Fusion Technologies
Private Networks for Innovation - 7 Dec 2021
The Physical Gets Metaphysical

the impacts of new sensor and data fusion technologies

Krzysztof Niewolny / Unsplash

Networked sensors and sensor data fusion are driving new Smart System innovations enabling a whole new generation of applications that are self-sensing, self-controlling, self-optimizing and “self-aware”—automatically, without human intervention. As networks continue to invade the “physical” world, solution designers are seeing the new values that come from the growing interactions between sensors, machines, systems and people.


Do you understand how fast the world is changing? One indication of the speed is the fact that we’re drowning in unprocessed information. We’re creating data at 2X the rate we’re deploying traditional bandwidth to carry it, but almost all the data created to date has never been analyzed. More than half the data created by physical or operational systems loses any value that could be derived through analysis in less than a single second.

Yet according to the National Science Foundation, there will soon be trillions of sensors on the earth. And forecasters predict that in just a few more years there will be more processing power in smart phones than in all the servers and storage devices in data centers on the earth today. Ready or not, we’re rushing into the future of truly distributed systems and intelligence.

Revolutions always begin by sensing small things and drawing inferences. For example, there is great value in knowing how people use “white goods” like home appliances. If you embedded a microprocessor in the plastic of an electrical outlet, you’d have true local processing as opposed to processing in a remote cloud. From there, you could infer almost anything by sensing the electrical current “signature” and its usage profile—not just energy used, and whether a washing machine’s motor is about to fail, but the fact that the consumer just washed a load of whites versus a load of colored clothes. If you had an inkjet printer plugged into that same outlet, you could know whether the consumer was printing colored pages versus black-and-white.

Analysis of data from a “sweat patch” for measuring human perspiration can reveal the emotional state of an athlete wearing it, as well as the level of physical stress she’s under. If a worker is wearing the patch, you can see if they’re being exposed to the many dangerous substances that exist in factories, farms, and other workplaces.

Weather is another complex phenomenon that can be greatly understood by correlating data values collected from simple pressure, temperature, and moisture sensors with additional spatial and temporal parameters that place the data into a richer context. I could be running a fleet based on weather forecasts, but if I add the data from sensor packs mounted directly on my vehicles, I’m less likely to be impacted by unexpected weather conditions. The closer that systems are to real-time, the more efficient and cost effective they can be. All such data, with its related context, has extraordinary value to everyone.


As networks have invaded the “physical” world, system and solution designers are seeing the new values that come from the growing interactions between sensors, machines, systems and people. Electronic, mechanical and other related systems that used to have unique physical interfaces and components are now becoming digital and standardized.

The convergence of collaborative systems and machine communications will enable entirely new modes of services delivery and customer interactions, and the implications are enormous. No product development organization will be able to ignore these forces, nor will their suppliers. Product and service design will increasingly be influenced by the use of common components and subsystems. Vertically defined, stand-alone products and application markets will become part of a larger “horizontal” set of standards for hardware, software and communications.

Further, efficient support of products and equipment is only the first benefit of this trend. To conserve precious resources on this tiny planet, the world desperately needs better sensing, and soon. But it’s not happening because the big attention and glamor continues to reside with IT, and IT wouldn’t know a sensor if it tripped over one. They understand the data that runs the corporation, but not the gargantuan accumulation of tiny data emanated by the systems that run the world. All those systems interact, which creates context, which adds to the value. It’s not that the IT guys are stopping the world from innovating, it’s that they have no direct interest in integrating real-time inputs.

All of these trends lead us to the simple question: How well-prepared are manufacturers for the advent of smart systems and services, sometimes called the Internet of Things? We may think we know how to design smart systems, but many companies are finding this to be a serious challenge. For all the talk about silicon-based “intelligence” permeating every aspect our lives, we still live in a brutally dumb world.


We believe that in most companies there is too much disconnection between people, functions, processes and knowledge to design and create organic smart systems growth opportunities. Large organizations have many rules and policies that often seem completely disconnected. They have been creating language, processes and systems that seem to be a triumph of technique over originality. General managers, like cost accountants, claim to have developed uniform approaches for just about everything–including “organic” growth.

Mounting evidence suggests that most of the existing approaches to creating new growth businesses are of little value when it comes to emergent and disruptive opportunities like the Internet of Things. These days all large manufacturers have a so-called “business system” which seems to have severely diminished managers’ ability to focus on new smart systems opportunities, take risks, or do just about anything creative. These robotic processes lead organizations further and further away from any kind of innovation and blur management’s vision.

Most knowledge comes from human experience and expertise. But today, knowledge and expertise largely reside in functional silos dispersed across organizations. Acting singularly, those siloed systems are constrained by the resources under their control. Legacy processes and habits inhibit any natural ability to communicate and collaborate on solving big problems or creating new solutions. In many companies, lean practices have been applied so aggressively that people are simply consumed by “running the business.” They fail to harness the collective intelligence available throughout the company and its networks. Thus, they fail to develop creative products, systems and solutions.

So how have manufacturers been able to continue to grow and create value in the equity markets? Several ways: global expansion, re-engineering, lean practices, mergers and acquisitions—all reasonable strategies for growth and value creation. But the marketplace is rapidly consolidating, and the world is increasingly driven by new and unfamiliar technologies. What worked in the past is less likely to work now or in the future. For many companies, those strategies have already reached the point of diminishing returns. Besides which, almost every major manufacturing segment has gone through twenty plus years of consolidation and there are not enough acquisition candidates left to “move the value needle.”


This evolution reminds us of a story by H. G. Wells, “The Country of the Blind.” The story concerns a group of people living in total isolation in a valley of the Andes Mountains. For an unknown reason, the inhabitants of the valley have been congenitally blind for two or three generations.

The people in the valley have re-evaluated much of the information handed down through oral tradition. New impressions have been forged based on subjective experience. For example, they have decided there is no difference between angels and birds. The people have reasoned that they can hear both birds and angels sing, and they can feel the wings of both brush their faces—so there must be no difference.

The story depicts a group of people who, as long as they remain in isolation, can rationalize any type of behavior—no matter how absurd the behavior appears to an outsider. Isolation and blindness lead the inhabitants further and further away from the truth.

In our opinion, existing schemas, institutions and approaches for new growth development are, for the most part, broken. In the Internet of Things arena, the complexity of interdependent relationships required for new growth ventures only compounds the challenges. In this environment, growth depends on interacting in new and creative ways. Linking functions by breaking down the barriers to communication is the first step, but it can’t stop there. The key is building truly collaborative networks.


For those brave enough to have invested in smart systems and services opportunities, progress has been slow to come. In many ways, most of the larger diversified industrials have not gone beyond “first base” in capitalizing on the value of connected smart systems and services.

We believe they have focused too much attention on captive OEM services. While many manufacturers have begun to build remote services programs, they are mostly directed at productivity and efficiency. These remote services programs are focused inwardly; they’re not focused on creating new customer value.

Based on Harbor Research analysis, many of these systems barely utilize the data they collect. While many players are talking a “Big Data” game, few are realizing any significant new value from machine data and analytics. To date, the remote services opportunity has been comprised of monitoring applications and related tracking and location services—what we like to call the “alerts and alarms” syndrome. Manufacturers are stalled, wondering how to get to a future focused on collaboration between devices, data, people and systems.

Given the apparent speed that corporate leadership can absorb new management theories maybe this isn’t a real problem; just a work in progress. With all the fads and fashion of management concepts, from empowerment to re-engineering to innovation and, more recently, design thinking, it’s a wonder we haven’t met the challenge of Smart Systems Design by now. Just observe how many consulting firms have acquired design firms in the last three years. Help is surely on the way.

Compared to what is evolving in the marketplace—design thinking or not—the solutions we are describing here will have far less managerial hierarchy, less command-and-control decision-making, less stage gate process, and less proprietary ownership of ideas. These networked—that is, “smart”—systems will be self-organized by manufacturers, partners and customers who are motivated to explore and develop ideas they care deeply about. Collaborative innovation will go beyond ideas about new products and services. They will extend to ideas about the very manner in which business is conducted.

This essay is supported by our infographic “Sensor Data Fusion.”

Fill out the form below to download the infographic for free.

Sensor Infographic thumbnail

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