“Manufacturing is more than just putting parts together”, says British industrial engineer Sir James Dyson. “It’s coming up with ideas, testing principles and perfecting the engineering, as well as final assembly.”
When it comes to these three key pillars of engineering design, few innovations have proved as revolutionary as The Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices. It’s little wonder, then, that manufacturers have embraced IoT so fervently.
In 2016, manufacturing had the largest worldwide investment in IoT technology among all industries with a total spend of $178bn, and is predicted to have the largest IoT investment between now and 2020.
The Industrial Internet of Things
This manufacturing revolution, powered by connected devices, goes by a couple of names: The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT); Industry 4.0. Whatever you want to call it, commentators are agreed on one thing; it’s an epoch-defining technological shift on a par with that of the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Consulting firm McKinsey describes the sea change as “manufacturing’s next act”.
The IIoT revolves around ‘smart factories’; sites where a wealth of digital tech innovations come together to transform manufacturing processes. It describes the merging of the physical and virtual worlds: the adoption of cyber-physical systems that connect all elements of the value chain to create intelligent, autonomous networks whose components talk both to each other, and to humans.
Multiple innovations including robotics, AI, cloud computing, sensors, big data and digital fabrication will drive this shift. Often thought of as individual technologies, when combined, they will integrate the physical and virtual world, allowing factories to become intelligent networks – all powered by the Industrial Internet of Things.
Existing applications in manufacturing
So, where has that $178bn of investment in 2016 been spent? How are businesses already using the IIoT? Two key areas of improvement thus far have been in speeding up processes and improving understanding of operations across entire factories.
In York, Pennsylvania, Harley-Davidson uses sensors and their associated applications to streamline and improve production. Talking to the Wall Street Journal, vice-president of global manufacturing, John Dansby II, describes the improvements to painting tasks: “[The IIoT] allows us to be more consistent. In the past, operators had a bit of leeway on paint jobs, and each could do the work in a slightly different way.”
Today, sensors in the spray room detect things like temperature, humidity and other relevant information so that the machines can adjust how they work when conditions deviate from the ideal environment. As Dansby says: “It is supposed to be an exact science, not art.” This, combined with other marginal gains led by the IIoT across the whole manufacturing process, means the business now builds a new motorcycle every 86 seconds.
In Amberg, Germany, the town’s Siemens AG plant features 1,000 manufacturing units which now communicate with each other via the IIoT, meaning that the majority of them can retrieve and assemble components with no human interaction whatsoever.
Elsewhere, Connecticut-based Vanguard Plastics is one of many firms using robots to augment its workforce, including Baxter from Rethink Robotics for robotic, repetitive tasks. Volkswagen uses RFID chips embedded into reusable shipping containers to track parts sent to their dealers, which has reduced annual parts distribution expenses by 30%. Elevator manufacturer ThyssenKrupp equips its elevators with sensors, combined with a cloud-based monitoring system to predict and preempt post-manufacture maintenance issues.
From condition-based maintenance alerts, inventory management and remote management of equipment to global ops monitoring, the IIoT is transforming manufacturing rapidly.
The future of the IIoT
Mobility – not just mobile phones and tablets, but also RFID tags, sensors, scanners and more – is the top priority for industrial manufacturing CEOs looking to gain competitive advantage, according to PWC research.
Apps have become the dashboard for the system as a whole: a place to report data, monitor processes and ensure efficiency. Veolita, a water company in Wiltshire, for instance, has equipped sewers and 100km worth of water mains with 1,500 sensors that can assess water quality, discover leaks and use connected devices to notify field engineers of any problems.
Existing applications such as these, however, have only just scratched the surface of what the IIoT could do. The IoT and the processes used in manufacturing are a perfect fit, with the former looking set to radically refine and streamline the latter.
Think of a world where workers are moved from the front line to behind-the-scenes, using technology to create and monitor, rather than using manual labour. Imagine factories with modular settings that could be reconfigured to produce many different products in one single space, saving the need for new factories or expanding existing space.
With the IoT, it could be possible to switch an entire factory from creating one product to focusing on something totally different at the touch of a button, or to manage the links between production and distribution without needing complex supply chain management processes.
And that’s not all…the IoT could also make it simple for factories to produce fully customised individual products without a whole lot of manual reconfiguration, tapping into another current consumer trend. It’s already been done at BASF SE’s pilot factory in Kaiserslautern, Germany: test orders for customised shampoos and liquid soaps were placed online, with RFID tags on empty bottles telling machinery how to label the bottle, which cap colour to choose, and what type of product and fragrance were required.
Investment in the IIoT is high – and for obvious reasons. The idea of robot-run factories which operate efficiently, quickly and intelligently is incredibly compelling for manufacturers in their quest for ever-greater efficiency. But while the death knell for human workers has been sounded from a few cynical quarters, we believe in a more collaborative future, where smart devices and humans work together harmoniously and successfully. As TechCrunch says: “The combination of human and artificial intelligence will define humanity’s future”. And the bridge between human and artificial intelligence will undoubtedly be app technology.
Interested in how the Internet of Things is transforming different industries? Read our articles on the healthcare, hospitality and retail sectors. And for more information on Calvium’s work with the IIoT, read our case study of Smart Buildings Technology company, enModus.