After years of promises and potential, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is finally, truly here. The IIoT was initially touted as having the potential to impact every industry in the world, driving the next leap forward in productivity. Often these claims fall short over time – the opposite may be the case. The IIoT has changed manufacturing and continues to do so as we’ll explore in this article.
The World of Smart Devices
We all carry our smartphones everywhere we go now, and it seems normal. Just watch an old movie and be reminded of the challenge of making a phone call when no public options existed. More than just being a phone, these devices are multi-functional, reminding us of appointments, telling us where we parked our car, and be updating us on late-breaking news stories.
What creates the value with each of these devices people carry is the intelligence that is provided based on data collected. Now, this is true with every device and piece of equipment on the factory floor. What has made this digital transformation possible is the investment manufacturers have made in enterprise systems to collect, process, and distribute data. Systems such as Manufacturing Execution (MES), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and others can now share data with people, processes, and equipment with greater ease and efficiency.
On the topic of Digital Transformation, this article may be of interest: 5 Ways to Measure Success in Digital Transformation
All the pieces are in place. Everything and everybody is increasingly connected, or soon will be. The question is, how will you make the most of that connectivity?
5 Ways the IIoT Has Changed Manufacturing
- Increase the value of automation. Robots and smart equipment are everywhere in manufacturing – there is a significant opportunity to create greater value with the IIoT. On the simplest level, smart machinery can send a wealth of information to systems like MES to perform quality analyses to drive performance improvement in processes and products. But we can take this further. Imagine a factory where all the automated devices are interconnected in a live network, sharing real-time data about events, which could then trigger activities and alert workers, all in real-time. A robot on a production line can improve the efficiency of that line, but robots communicating as part of a larger system can improve an entire factory or even an enterprise.
- Streamline key operations. Practices like Lean manufacturing, demand-driven production, and Just-in-Time inventory replenishment have been around for years, but they have become much more realistic and practical with the IIoT. For example, production line equipment can send triggers to the warehouse, where automated carts can find and load smart pallets and then deliver them where they’re needed, automatically. This process, in turn, can signal the inventory system to order replacement supplies, and so on. With the IIoT, this kind of complex chain of actions can be initiated, tracked, and completed without any human involvement unless needed.
- Reduce production downtime. Breakdowns, parts shortages, accidents – many things can throw a monkey wrench into your production plan. The IIoT can help you respond to these events swiftly and efficiently, such as by having equipment send immediate alerts to maintenance teams, who can then use IIoT connectivity to identify and find the tools and information they need. Gong a step further, the IIoT can take predictive maintenance to a new level. Sensors can collect data from your machines by using vibrational, acoustic, infrared, or many other multi-dimensional methods to warn of machine failures before they happen. When properly harnessed through the IIoT, predictive maintenance can help make machine downtime a thing of the past.
- Enhance the customer experience. The IIoT allows you to stay connected to your customer, even after the product is in their hands. This is achieved by using data collection to see the performance in real-life action. You could send repair instructions directly to the customer through an app on their smartphone. You could drive sales and marketing opportunities by seeing exactly how your product is used. If you have digitalized your MRO (Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul) system, you have a much more comprehensive view into operations status, repair history, and the like, which can then be fed back into your MES or other systems for continuous improvement. The possibilities are endless, and they all result in a stronger, closer relationship with your customers.
- Completing the Digital Thread. A modern Digital Thread can greatly benefit from IIoT infrastructure. Using the IIoT data at every stage of the product lifecycle, will help you to correct and optimize the design and quality of your product. If you’re dealing with a complex and highly engineered product that is subject to frequent Engineering Change Orders (ECOs) during production, a Digital Thread can maintain uptime and optimize production processes by quickly sending updated, step-by-step instructions to technicians. A complete Digital Thread is the best way to deliver the best product at the fastest rate possible, made possible by the Industrial Internet of Things, among other factors.
This is just a high-level snapshot of the IIoT’s impact on modern industrial operations. The IIoT has changed the landscape manufacturers operate in. More importantly, it has raised expectations on what data can be made available to support intelligent decision support. That “Jeanie” is now out of the bottle with no turning back!
The cost of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and automation are declining with their abilities and connectivity quickly increasing. Those that have/are investing in building out their digital infrastructure will be able to take advantage of and harness this intelligence and connectivity with the greatest potential for performance improvement. As part of this planning, it will be necessary to have sufficiently flexible systems to accommodate the continued growth and innovation that is expected to continue. The IIoT is no longer a distant promise for the future. It’s here today. And, it’s one more reason to embrace digital transformation in your manufacturing enterprise.