How Internet of Things (IoT) Technology is Used in Manufacturing

Internet of Things (IoT) Manufacturing Applications

The Internet of Things (IoT) is such a ubiquitous tech concept these days that it seems impossible to imagine a world without it. The basic philosophy is simple: Attach sensors and controls to physical objects so that they can be analyzed and controlled by software. It has applications everywhere, and applying concepts of big data and automation to the world of manufacturing has proven so fruitful that it has become its own subset of the tech. Industrial IoT, as it is known, is transforming the manufacturing industry as we know it.

The factors that have allowed industrial IoT to take off with such incredible speed and force is something of a perfect storm of tech innovations. Cloud computing has made processing power cheap and plentiful. Internet infrastructure advancement allows for untold amounts of data to be easily pushed up to those cloud servers. Finally, business clients and end users alike are become more savvy, more informed, and above all, more demanding of quality.

IT think tank Gartner estimates that by 2020, there will be over 26 billion connected devices comprising the Internet of Things. With that volume, one thing is clear: IoT is here, it is here to stay, and it is making a difference in the world. Here are some ways it stands ready to transform the manufacturing industry, in particular.

GE and Globalized Industrial IoT

General Electric has been a technological thought leader since their founding over 100 years ago. They found early success in the space with their digital power plant systems, which utilize data analytics and remote control to optimize power plants ranging from coal to solar. By keeping close track of plant emissions, output, and performance utilizing a staggering number of variables, GE is able to make power plants put out more power, and do it cheaply. Even better, the industrial IoT platform allows the power plants to operate with less environmentally harmful emissions.

GE is now taking their Predix platform to the global market, and has recently partnered with Chinese conglomerate Huawei. Huawei is betting big on the Internet of Things, and offers a wide range of consumer and business IoT products in the Chinese market.

The collaboration between the two firms is expected to bring the burgeoning Chinese manufacturing sector up to par with the latest technology, as well as lead to new innovations and applications as GE helps found an incubator space in the area. In return, Huawei will help GE bring Predix and other industrial IoT products to additional global markets, including other Asian countries and Australia.

What is Needed for the Manufacturing Internet of Things

Although the expansion and adoption of the IoT has proceeded at a breakneck pace across all sectors and industries, the manufacturing industry consensus is that there is still work to be done.

Professional services alliance PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) recently released a series of whitepapers detailing their thoughts about the integration of IoT into the manufacturing world. The papers go into what they see as good, bad, and what to expect in future.

Surprisingly, adoption of IoT into the manufacturing space has been slower than in other industries. Just 35% of companies surveyed currently use IoT sensors to enhance their manufacturing operations. Importantly, this number refers only to sensors used in the process of manufacturing, and not to the number of products produced that have IoT components as part of their designs. In other words, the manufacture of consumer marketed IoT devices is not counted in this survey, unless IoT technology was actually used to create them.

For the organizations that have fully embraced IoT, the survey found that they have reaped great benefits. By leveraging data acquisition and analytics, every aspect of the manufacturing process can be finely optimized. The efficiency of the manufacturing process can be improved in every respect, from the cost and time per unit, to the frequency of manufacturing errors.

The main roadblock to widespread adoption of IoT in manufacturing, PwC found, is in talent acquisition and training. The employees and executives involved in the factory process need retraining, or in some cases replacement, in order to fully leverage the new technologies.

Factory Automation

Of course, in the modern manufacturing world, things can often manufacture other things. Factory robots have been in use in a number of industries for years, and IoT techniques have only made them more effective (and much more impressive). Manufacturing machinery that leverages data rather than simply performing a rote set of commands can respond to environmental data and work in closer tandem with human and robotic workers up and down the line.

The buzzword for this is “frictionless communications.” Essentially, the goal is for machines to seamlessly pass information between each other, eliminating error and operating with peak efficiency at all times. IoT is crucial to this lofty ideal. With its ability to gather huge amounts of data, process it quickly, and come to actionable conclusions, the right IoT implementation could serve as a central controller for an entire factory. Machines and even human workers could be equipped with clear, precise directions on how to manufacture more efficiently than ever before.

The Industrial Society of Automation (ISA) is a nonprofit industry organization dedicated to promotion of standards and best practices across the manufacturing industry. They have been longtime proponents of integrating the Internet of Things into factory operations.

As the ISA says, industrial IoT can be used to “streamline, collapse, and create system architectures that are more affordable, responsive, and effective.” Although the manufacturing industry has not yet fully adopted IoT, the fact that this respected trade organization advocates for it so strongly can only lead to good things.

Although manufacturing is not an area into which the average consumer or tech enthusiast has a direct view, it affects us all through the quality of the goods we purchase, their price, and ultimately, their usefulness. Anyone interested in the cutting edge of IoT should keep a close eye on the factory scene. Research and development are still ongoing into IoT in manufacturing, and it’s difficult to say how the industry will finally integrate the technology.