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How IIoT will deliver smarter factories

03 August, 2018

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has been described as the fourth industrial revolution. Like steam, the production line and information technology before it, the convergence of cyber and physical systems has the ability to utterly transform how factories operate. Jon Hill, business development director (pictured) , reports.

The IIoT is a collective term for the introduction of Internet of Things technology – this is, internet-enabled sensors, devices, computers and other objects that can generate, share and analyse vast quantities of digital data – to industrial settings. Thanks to these technologies, warehouses, logistics centres and above all, manufacturing floors are becoming more intelligent and more innovative.

Until recently, industrial organisations and manufacturers seeking to reduce costs would invest in automation or shift their factory operations overseas, perhaps to China, India, Thailand or Vietnam. Now, with the advent of the IIoT, process efficiencies and cost reductions can be delivered closer to home – smart factories of the future can be developed on our doorsteps.

How? At its core, the IIoT is able to bring together design, manufacture, supply and demand and maintenance, blurring the boundaries between these previously disparate elements of the factory floor. In this white paper, we’re looking at each of those areas in more detail, and giving some examples of how the IIoT will – and is already – delivering smarter factories.

Design

Before a factory actually begins producing a product, it needs to be working from a
design for that product. So far, so simple. The interesting thing about the IIoT is that it can dramatically speed up the feedback loop between products that are out in the world, being used by customers, and new product development based on their use of those products, and their feedback. In short, the IIoT can speed up the time to market of brand new or enhanced existing products – and can help ensure that those products are more precisely tailored to customers’ wants and needs.

How? It’s all about being able to make individual products smarter. For example, Rolls Royce’s aircraft engines are now embedded with sensors that collect performance data in-flight. This has a powerful effect on maintenance processes, as we will go on to explore, but also means that the company can learn from existing product performance in real-life, and consequently develop appropriate new products far faster and more intelligently than ever before. The IIoT can help designers understand how their customers are using their products and how those products are performing – and, in turn, make design adjustments that respond to those behaviours.

Supply and demand

Well-managed supply chains are the absolute bedrock of efficient factory processes. It is vital that manufacturing businesses always have enough components in place to meet production demands, yet never so many that cash flow is restricted or that the business runs the risk of having a surplus of unused parts and obsolescence. Supply chains also need to be increasingly agile if manufacturing businesses are to remain competitive; they need to be able to adapt rapidly to new developments and new innovations, and switch suppliers quickly when it is appropriate.

The IIoT can help factories sense and analyse demand and material flows, and make adjustments to manufacturing processes and requests for new components accordingly. As a result, supply chains become more agile and more closely integrated with functions like sales, marketing and customer care.

There is also the potential for the IIoT to overhaul existing supply chains, by connecting manufacturers more closely with their suppliers and partners; if information is being dynamically shared between them thanks to connected devices and sensors, then components can be supplied more efficiently. In turn, this offers the possibility for better sustainability practices, and greater integration between the local and the global. Consider, for example, the so-called ‘makers movement’, which focuses on enabling manufacturers to choose more local suppliers, yet to supply customers both near and far. The IIoT can also power sustainable processes, such as resources being re-used or waste products being used as fuel.

Maintenance

A major advantage of the IIoT in terms of improving efficiencies and reducing costs is its ability to help manufacturing business to sweat their assets – that is, to maximise the performance of their hardware through proactive monitoring and maintenance. Shutting down factory floors to carry out routine maintenance or worse, to try and pinpoint a particular mechanical problem can be hugely costly, but before the advent of smart sensors and intelligent IoT analytics engines, there was no other option. Now, maintenance teams can pro- actively assess the wear and performance of each individual element on the factory floor, and even receive data suggesting the best time to undertake routine or one-off maintenance jobs. When problems do occur, they can rapidly be identified and isolated too, without necessarily interrupting the overall manufacturing process.

The maintenance issue applies to products as well as machinery on the factory floor. ThyssenKrupp, for example, now produces lifts, which include sensors that send performance information in real-time to the cloud, in turn empowering engineers to assess how long key components have left before they need replacing. Meanwhile, technologies such as augmented reality, used in conjunction with the IIoT, can help maintenance engineers assess data such as flow rates or vibration levels in more accessible, interactive ways. It all helps build a maintenance programme that is more precise, more tailored and more intelligent than ever before.

Manufacture

At the heart of the factory floor are the physical manufacturing processes, and this is the core of the IIoT. By retrofitting existing devices, sensors and other machinery with smart technology – or deploying newer versions with internet capabilities ‘baked in’ – industrial businesses can access more data than ever before on how their products are made. Here, the opportunities for innovation and enhancement are enormous.

On the simplest level, IIoT-enabled devices on the factory floor can drive manufacturing efficiencies, by tracking elements like wear on machines and levels of consumables remaining. On a more sophisticated level, technologies like augmented reality can be integrated with IIoT capabilities, to get product designers closer to the manufacturing process. Greater customisation and personalisation of products is possible too.

Breaking boundaries

As we have seen, these four key areas: design, supply and demand, manufacture and maintenance, can become far more closely aligned through the IIoT. Data from one area can be fed into others, enabling industrial businesses to make smarter decisions in everything from product development to machine maintenance. Indeed, the essence of smarter factories is the ability for different areas of the factory
to learn from and inform each other, so that valuable data is harnessed for the organisation’s future.

For the first time, all of these information flows can take place in real-time and across the value chain, and as IIoT technologies become more familiar and more widely used, they can take place on an inter-plant as well as an intra-plant level. So, not only can different areas on the same factory floor learn from each other, but suppliers and customers, or sister companies, can work more closely together too. The Industrial Internet of Things is breaking down barriers throughout the manufacturing sector. As we have shown, it is dissolving the boundaries between design, supply and demand, manufacture and maintenance. It is also breaking down the barriers between man and machine, enabling machines to learn from each other and human operators to make smarter, more strategic business decisions. And it
is dissolving the boundaries between different manufacturing plants, ensuring that factories no longer operate in isolation, but can share and analyse information in real-time.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is well and truly here, and the IIoT is at the heart of it.

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